Southport’s Chef

Executive Chef Stephen Phipps is at home in the kitchen of Mr. P’s Bistro. Photo by Bethany Turner

Executive Chef Stephen Phipps is at home in the kitchen of Mr. P’s Bistro. Photo by Bethany Turner

“As you may know, I come from a restaurant family,” Executive Chef Stephen Phipps says as we sit down at the bar of Mr. P’s Bistro. It is the day before Valentine’s Day, and service manager Chris Smith is distributing calls for reservations onto an in-depth, systematic worksheet—a method he’s perfected in the 20 years the restaurant has been open. His organization ensures the kitchen and service staff commands a smooth flow throughout each night.

Such attention to detail is only one of the reasons Mr. P’s Bistro remains successful after so many years in business. A large part of the eatery’s fame is due to the Phippses’ family history, which gave life to Stephen Phipps’ pure passion for cooking.

“Mr. P was my father, who died three years ago,” the chef shares of local icon Norman Phipps. “He was a well-known restaurant man in the area. He built many restaurants around here, and I grew up—as well as my brothers and sisters, and my mother, everybody—working in the restaurants for a lot of years.”

Phipps began cooking in Southport at 16. Thus, many customers of Mr. P’s Bistro are long-time family friends. “These people have seen me grow up, and all of us grow up, since we were kids,” he says. “And here I am, all these years later. I started as a fry cook up there at Sandfiddler in 1979, or something like that—and here I am today.”

In the mid-’80s, Phipps was working with his father in an eatery on Ocean Crest Pier. “My family operated a restaurant over there on Long Beach called the Windjammer—very killer restaurant,” he describes. “My father built it back in 1981, I guess it was, and he ran it for several years after that.”

Phipps, then 19 years old, was approached by his father. “What do you want to do with your life?” the patriarch asked his young son.

“Being 19, 20 on the beach right there—about time to go do something before you get into too much trouble,” Phipps explains with a smirk. “And then we found out Johnson and Wales was going to open a campus down in Charleston, so we went and checked it out.”

Phipps started at the university in September 1984, earning his associate degree in culinary arts, and graduating with Charleston’s first class in 1986. From that year until his return to Southport in 1993, Phipps earned real-life experience beside world-class chefs.

“I had dozens and dozens of chefs that made impressions on me—all different kinds of chefs, from French to German to African to Japanese,” he details. “They have an influence on your life.”

Eventually, the famous Lowcountry culinarian Louis Osteen gathered Phipps under his wing at the Pawley’s Island Inn. “I was probably 23 or 24—right out of school—and it was probably my first real hands-on [experience]. From the docks to the fields. From French techniques to making our stocks and sauces every day. Just using fresh, local, Lowcountry Carolina products. It was one of the best restaurants there was at the time. I’d say Lewis Osteen was a big influence. He was a really, really good chef.”

From those years with Osteen, including a stint at one of the chef’s downtown Charleston kitchens, Phipps determined his culinary calling was Lowcountry-style, too. “I worked in Charleston, Wilmington, and the sea islands of South Carolina for a lot of years. That’s where I got my Lowcountry motif; I grew up in it. If I went to California, I’d be experiencing California cuisine—but I stayed around here,” he confirms with proud conviction. “Southport’s my home. I didn’t go that far; I was two or three hours either way.”

With the imprint of several renowned chefs, Phipps returned to his home in southeastern North Carolina to begin a new endeavor. “We actually started in ‘93 as a placed called Harborside,” he tells. “I was thinking about opening a place called Mr. P’s—it was going around in my head.”

That inkling, to pay tribute to his father, was derived from an establishment in Louisiana. “There’s a restaurant family called the Brennans,” the chef explains. “They have many restaurants in New Orleans, and one of their flagship restaurants is Mr. B’s Bistro. There’s a restaurant family in Southport called the Phippses—so  I thought, I’m gonna open up a place and call it Mr. P’s Bistro.”

The Brennans are recognized for their barbecued shrimp, Phipps tells. “Without a doubt, we’re famous for Oysters Bienville; shrimp and grits; fresh, local seafood,” he says of Mr. P’s. “We do tuna, grouper, lots of flounder dishes—we do an awesome stuffed flounder.”

He assures, however, if a guest doesn’t see a style they want on the menu, he can create it. “Say we’ve got some fresh flounder, and you like capers—you want a nice, sautéed flounder piccata.” Phipps slowly and deliberately delivers the name of the dish; it’s clear he is imagining the plate in his mind.

“I can make it—you name it,” he continues. “We do a lot of tuna here. If you’re a fan of tuna: sesame-crusted, seared rare, which is called the Underground Tuna, with wasabi, pickled ginger and Hawaiian barbecue sauce—like a sushi type [of dish].”

Of course, Phipps jokes that it is one thing to talk about his love for cooking, and another to actually cook when the dining room is full of 100 people. “You really want to see what it’s like,” he asks, “step back in the kitchen sometime and I’ll show you an eyeful. I used to thrive [on the stress] a lot—I used to a whole lot. But now after about 30 years, it’s starting to wear on me a little bit. I still enjoy being in it because this is my life; this is what my life has been all these years. I worked so hard to get here.”

Smith, who is married to Phipps’ youngest sister, has been involved with Mr. P’s since the early days. He notes the family interaction and the people of Southport as integral parts of the restaurant. “I’ve formed so many relationships with people over the years and have grown up with them as well,” he shares. “It’s fun to see people come back in, and you get to know them. Some people become great friends that were customers first. And I really appreciate the consistency from what Steve does in the kitchen—it makes my job a whole lot easier.”

What doesn’t get old for Phipps is when new guests come in expressing what positive things they’ve heard about Mr. P’s. “That’s years and years and years of hard, hard work,” he replies. “You can go anywhere in town and ask them where the best restaurant is—you know where they’re gonna send you? Right here. Just ask anybody. And that’s probably my greatest accomplishment: working with my father as he built all this with us, [to have] a successful, well-known restaurant. It means a lot.”

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Mr. P’s Bistro will continue to serve up the Lowcountry cuisine it is praised for. “Definitely seafood—oh yeah,” Phipps muses. “A good Southern hospitality. Good, fresh food. The Southern way of life, you know?”

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