I grew up on the west coast of Ireland, where it wasn’t difficult to find fantastic seafood. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, fish was always eaten on Fridays, as Catholics made up 99 percent of the Irish population. As a child in Limerick and Clare, on the rare occasion that the sun would shine and the temperature would rise above freezing, we would hit the beach for the day. I have fond memories of the ubiquitous street carts selling bags of steamed seaweed and periwinkles. The adults normally ate the seaweed, and the kids went mad for the periwinkles. I’d have a bag of them in one hand and a pin needle in the other so as to retrieve each little sea snail from its home.
The coast of Ireland is dotted with small fishing villages catching arguably some of the best seafood in the world. We had beautiful stone crabs, lobster, cod, prawns, oysters, mussels, salmon, turbot, and mackerel, to name some of the more familiar varieties. I didn’t realize when I left Ireland and moved to the coast of Connecticut (and later to New York, California, and finally Charleston) that I would dedicate 27 years to seafood. Indeed, it just seemed like a natural progression; I mean, if you live on the coast, you catch, cook, and eat what is available from those waters. The variety and diversity of different species is so astounding, and I suppose that’s the attraction for me.
I first became serious about seafood when I lived on Connecticut’s Long Island Sound. Harvesting blue point oysters, digging clams, dropping lobster pots, and catching blue fish and striped bass was remarkable. Yet it wasn’t until I read an article in Bon Appétit about Gilbert Le Coze, “The Seafood Master” and the founding father of Le Bernardin, that I was inspired to merge my cooking and love of seafood. Working at Le Bernardin, initially with Le Coze and later with Eric Ripert, opened my eyes to what seafood was all about. The food preparations were so simple, so pure, and never overdone. The reverence and respect that seafood was given from the receiving door to the plate was sacred and still is today, 27 years later.
I worked at Le Bernardin for two years, and the experience left an indelible impression on me and continues to influence what I do with seafood. Le Coze would ask in his French accent: “Where is zee acidity coming from?” which probably explains why I’m a vinaigrette fanatic. Vinegar just complements lightly cooked fish and shellfish so well. Think about it: What is fish and chips without vinegar? The menu headings at Le Bernardin reflect how seafood should be prepared and eaten: simply or almost raw and barely touched.
I arrived here in 1994 (by way of California), and the city truly reminded me of Ireland. Jose De Anacleto, former chef and owner of Restaurant Million and McCrady’s, hired me, and I’m sure it was because of my work at Le Bernardin. The Lowcountry presented yet another seafood experience. The emphasis back then — and still today — was to use what is fresh and available from the local waters. Chefs like De Anacleto, Frank Lee, Donald Barickman, and Louis Osteen found fresh crab in McClellanville, swordfish and shrimp in Shem Creek, and fish like black bass, triggerfish, vermillion snapper, sheepshead, and grouper caught from the open waters.
Thirteen years ago, my experience led me to Hank Holliday, who was opening a seriously dedicated Charleston seafood restaurant, respectful of the older classic preparations but also representing a more modern style. From day one at Hank’s Seafood Restaurant, our goal has been to use the best possible local seafood, and there are no suppliers more local than Dan Long from Crosby’s Seafood, Tommy Edwards from Shem Creek for seasonal local white shrimp, and, more recently, Mark Marhefka for fish, as well as David Belanger for caper blades oysters and clams and Kimberly Carroll for crab. This past year, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Hank’s traditions and recipes as well as the local purveyors while working on our upcoming cookbook, Cool Inside: Hank’s Seafood Restaurant.
It amazes me how much seafood we process each day at our one restaurant. Chefs and restaurants now face a whole new set of challenges regarding seafood, its availability, and the costs associated with the best products. Let’s face it, we all need to be responsible to our businesses and to the people we hire to make money — like it or not, that’s the bottom line. So getting the correct solutions in place to help ensure both the seafood and the businesses survive is key and not simple. The S.C. Aquarium’s Sustainable Seafood Initiative is doing a great service and is fundamental to ensuring the sustainability of ecosystems as a whole. The Lowcountry’s unique intertidal marsh, which serves as a vital nursery system for all seafood species in our immediate waters, has to be protected in order to survive. We must be vigilant in supporting a well-balanced management system that can work for everyone, including the amazing seafood that pleases so many.