Elegant and simple, raw fish is completely underrated as a holiday appetizer 

Holiday Crudo
Credit: Jenn Rice

John May, chef at Durham’s Piedmont restaurant, is known for serving delightfully quirky vegetable-centric dishes, as well as some of the most beautiful crudo creations in the South.

“I love crudo, especially at the beginning of a meal or for groups to share,” he says. “The lightness of a good crudo really gets my palate excited for the rest of the food. It's the perfect way to create a flavorful and unexpected experience.”

On a recent afternoon, after plating local red drum with salsa verde and pepperwort foraged from the beach, May declared that crudo is the lovely party snack that everyone’s holiday gathering is missing. Not only is crudo vibrant and pretty, but it's full of flavor and surprisingly easy to master at home—after reading these tips, of course. (And this guide to conquering your fear of prepping raw fish.)

Here, May shares his expertise on how to put together the prettiest, most delicious crudo plate for a gathering.

Prioritize quality over quantity.

Crudo dishes are much easier to pull off than you might think. A few skills are needed, but the most important part of the dish is the fish itself. “Go to a fish supplier that you know and trust and ask them for what is freshest,” May says. “Be upfront with them, and let them know it will be for a raw preparation and that you would love to have it cleaned as you shop.” This saves prep time and ensures you’re getting the proper kind of fish.

Use these fish.

There are many fish in the sea, but May personally likes snapper, grouper or a fish of similar characteristics “because they have great texture and fat content.”

You’ll need a damn good knife and some skills.

May is particular about slicing, as there’s a very specific technique involved. “You want a thin slice—a long, thin slice,” he says. “Get a sharp slicing knife and start at the heel of the knife on the far end of the fish in preparation for an angled slice. Pull the knife down and back towards you, cutting smooth and deliberately.” Whatever you do, don’t saw the fish, as it will tear the piece.

Keep it simple.

While a quality fish is the star of the dish, adding too many components can ruin its flavor profile. “I like to put four ingredients on the plate to accent the fish,” May says. He uses sea salt, acidity, texture and fat. A crunchy, flaked sea salt and quality olive oil are key, and he turns to items like radishes, pomegranates and rice chips for texture. “At the restaurant, we make a crab roe-infused rice chip that directly reminds me of the ocean,” he adds. And when it comes to acidity, think vinegar, citrus juices or supreme citrus fruits (pith and membrane-free citrus fruit slices). “I like something with a touch of sour, as it piques the interest of your taste buds and makes you salivate.”

Plate with style.

According to May, “the plate is essential to the dish,” so it’s best to plan ahead before putting the puzzle pieces together. “We are lucky enough to work with a great local potter named Matt Hallyburton, who creates plates for us that are designed to follow along with our mantra,” he adds. “His plates are refined and natural, which reflects the way we design crudo dishes. The best way to plate a crudo dish is to let things fall naturally and let the combination of flavors show off for you.”

Finish with a solid wine pairing.

May’s rule of thumb is to choose wines according to flavors on the plate, but a few of his all-time, foolproof crudo pairings are Sancerre, Vermentino and Chenin Blanc.