Dawn’s Kitchen: The pleasure of dining out while eating in

By on April 30, 2017

The long dining table bearing a nautical theme. Below, Sonny and Dawn Holcomb greet the diners at the Pop-Up event.

Story and photos by Jim Trotman

Dawn Holcomb sat on the edge of the hospital bed. Life had thrown her a curveball. In the previous months, the restaurant veteran had been running a modest catering business that her husband Sonny had helped get off the ground.

Dawn was doing what she loved, making people happy with her cooking while Sonny was dutifully supplanting the cash flow to the business as needed.

Dawn Holcomb had grown up in the kitchens of her grandparents’ Carolina Beach restaurants, south of Wilmington.

“They owned three or four restaurants,” she said. “They were also real estate and car people.”

She was busing tables by 11. In her early teens she was washing dishes, then moved on to prepping, sautéing, frying and grilling. “Eventually they put me in the bar.”

She recalled the days when fishing boats her uncles ran kept a steady supply of fresh fish coming through: “I always saw fresh, live seafood in the sink growing up.”

On weekends during the farming season, other relatives would bring in bushels of whatever was coming in at the time. The trade worked well, the farmers bringing produce to the beach and returning with fresh seafood. “Everything was farm to table, that’s the way I grew up.”

She was running Smittie’s Crow’s Nest when she met her husband, Sonny Holcomb. They moved to the Outer Banks, where Sonny got into the real estate trade. Dawn cooked at Duck Woods Country Club and did odd catering jobs, then settled in at Lodevici’s restaurant. But that came to a halt when the restaurant closed. Dawn stepped back from the kitchen for a while, needing a break.

Dawn at the stove in the cottage.

In 2009, Sonny asked if she wanted to get back into cooking, but Dawn was interested in only a small operation. Sonny found her a space just across the bridge in Currituck County that she could use to prepare lunches and dinners. “It was more something for me to do,” she said.

Then Sonny became ill. By 2011, he was unable to work, and the medical bills were piling high. The doctors told Dawn that without a liver transplant, Sonny’s time was short. As bad as that was, the paycheck that had been taking care of the house, the insurance, the cars and helping the fledgling catering business was gone as well as their savings.

She was there in the hospital with Sonny, on the edge of her bed when her phone rang, a bride in need of a caterer for her reception. It then rang three more times after that. By the end of that one evening she had booked four weddings.

“I had been praying and God said, ‘You know, I’m going to take care of you,’ and it’s been that way ever since.”

With this burst of business and new-found confidence, Holcomb turned her business around. “This was the direction to go in.”

Sonny hung on and in 2013, received a new liver. After the operation, while she was at Duke University Medical Center, staying by Sonny’s side as he recovered, she ran her business by phone.

Her mother and the staff back at the kitchen in Harbinger catered dinners every night for eight weeks straight in this way. Dawn sent her e-mails of what to do, where to go. “It’s amazing if you have a computer and a telephone and what you can do,” said Holcomb.

Sonny had recovered well enough that he joined Dawn in hosting a crowd of some 30 diners during the recent Taste of the Beach Pop-Up Oceanfront Restaurant event. This was a first for the Outer Banks Restaurant Association, which runs the annual food and drink festival.

At a planning meeting, Audrey Webster, the marketing director for the group, proposed a new feature, a Pop-Up Restaurant whereby chefs without a standard venue could showcase their catering skills in a non-restaurant setting, such as a private home, a former factory or other suitable space.

Dawn raised her hand, as did Pok’s Art Obx Asian Fusion. The group’s president, Daniel Lewis, approached Carolina Designs, who in turn supplied an impressive oceanfront cottage, Grande Paradise, for the event. Dawn’s Kitchen was slated to host on Friday night, and Pok’s Art on Saturday night.

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The Pop-Up Dinner
We at the Voice were fortunate to attend. The affair was, in a word, stunning. It began with wine and a cheese and fruit offering on the deck on a perfect, low-humidity March evening. There were some folks we knew, some we did not, but we would leave as friends before the evening was done.

In time, we took our places at one of two long tables, decked out in a nautical theme. A copy of the night’s menu was at each place setting. Each of the seven courses to come were paired with wines from Sanctuary Vineyards, each wine showing a degree of maturity and panache from this emerging local vintner.

“We do a typical dinner like that for some of the guests who come down, wanting a private chef’s dinner.” Normally a dinner would be four courses, but an event such as Taste of the Beach allowed it to expand into a full chef’s tasting menu.

In keeping with the oceanfront setting, the courses highlighted seafood, beginning with seared scallops with a mango and jalapeno relish with basil oil and caviar. This was visually striking and set a high bar. The wine, Wild Pony White (a portion of proceeds benefit the Corolla Wild Horse Fund) was a good match.

A quintet of oysters on the half shell followed, with a Chardonnay to balance the varied toppings.

A duo of butternut squash ravioli in a light brandy cream sauce was next, followed by fried sweetbreads on creamy grits with veal jus. My dining companion to my left was certain these were from an entirely different part of the animal, and it took some coaxing from me to assure here they were not, in fact, Rocky Mountain Oysters.

The next plate to land was the always fun fish in parchment, the fragrant steam rising when the package is opened. Inside was a fresh local filet, vegetables, lemon and butter.

Pork belly on winter greens was next, with a honey pepper drizzle that combined to let this one hit all the flavor senses.

A creamy, tart, frozen lemon soufflé rounded out the evening.

Dawn and Sonny came by to chat with their diners. Across the table, Jane Thorsen, with her friend Peg Mannion were visiting the Outer Banks for the first time from Illinois. The event impressed them, with Thorsen telling Dawn, “This is like a big wow!”

The dinner was a snapshot of how far things have come for Dawn and Sonny Holcomb. The season is on and she looks to be busy as ever. There are still challenges, but she has momentum on her side.

We asked her how she would describe what she does: “What we put out there the most is catering delicious memories. It sort of ties everything in.”

Dawn’s Kitchen
9026 Caratoke Hwy
Harbinger, NC 27948
252 491-2048

The Oceanfront House: Grande Paradise

Sanctuary Vineyards

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