It’s not every day that a young Irish chef from Galway gets to travel to China to pick up one of the most prestigious awards in culinary publishing. Michael O’Meara is Chef/Patron of Oscar’s Seafood Bistro in Galway which he runs with wife Sinéad and on May 29th he represented Ireland at the World Gourmand Awards in Yantai, China.
Michael was delighted when his seafood encyclopedia Sea Gastronomy was shortlisted in the seafood category but he admits he nearly fell off his chair when he realised it had also been nominated in the Best Overall Cookbook Category. The scale of the event didn’t dawn on Michael until he arrived in China. “It’s such a huge global award, there were 209 countries there that had been entered in some way. Its considerably more countries than the Olympics which is crazy.”
Sea Gastronomy was victorious and named Best Seafood Cookbook in the World and placed in the top ten overall. Michael was thrilled to have the opportunity to represent his country and says it adds a whole other element to the significance of the awards.
Just be able to raise the old tricolour, representing your country, it brings it into a whole new element. Like when the winning publication goes up on the big screen you don’t see your name on it you see Ireland. To actually see yourself not just representing yourself but rather your country, it kinda sends the heebie jeebies through you you know! It’s a tremendous honour actually to be in a position to be standing up there on a world stage representing your country. It’s an incredible thing altogether.
A deserved win for what is a complete labour of love for Michael. Having operated a seafood restaurant for 16 years, Michael has long been passionate about protecting and promoting Irish fisheries, ‘our greatest natural resource’. Part of his purpose in creating Sea Gastronomy was to educate people about sustainability and marine management while making them aware of the importance in using the entire catch and the range of species that is available in our waters.
In his aim to produce a technically correct volume that would be useful, Michael sought assistance from his network of colleagues including Dr. Peter Tindal, a marine biologist with BIM and Dr. Frank Cullen of DIT. “It was edited from a technical point of view to within an inch of its life. Sometimes, as a chef, you might be getting things wrong like I’m not a marine biologist so it was very important to get those facts right. Then Dr. Cullen advised extensively on how to make it a useful textbook for culinary students, or anybody else for that matter.”
Sea Gastronomy is a collection of over 120 species and 220 recipes, a mammoth undertaking for a full time chef. A comprehensive tome such as this hasn’t been successful or even attempted until now as Michael says a lot of factors have to come together to make it happen. The most important factor is you need access to a vast range of species.
If you are using a land based recipe it’s very easy to access ingredients and I can develop a cookery book very easily. But with marine and fisheries, with Sea Gastronomy, we wanted this encyclopedic backbone to the entire work which meant that it can be kind of hard to get fish so you need a bit of a network. I have a seafood restaurant so I had a bit of a network already of fishmongers, farmers, fishermen, BIM and the marine research centre. So I was actually getting in gild head bream and stone bass, that particular stone bass actually made the Irish Times previously because it was such a rare catch. So there were a lot of species which were very hard to actually obtain and you need a network so that if one is caught, you get it.
Some of the fish that Michael was able to get his hands on would only be available to him for a certain amount of time or would lose their lustre shortly after being caught. As a result it became increasingly important for Michael to be able to photograph each species himself as photographers are hard to come by on short notice. Luckily Michael has long had a passion for photography and he now contributes to premium imagery sites Getty Images and iStock, having developed his skills. “I have my own little techniques now for photographing them like I figured that with gills and so on, when I’m doing an isolation shot, I use invisible thread and these kind of things to start pulling the fins forward so they’re not flat, you can see the entire fish.”
With nearly 400 images in Sea Gastronomy its not that surprising that Michael embraced that aspect so completely, he has even taken over the attic of his house to commit to it. “I have a full studio built here for photographing food and specifically fish. I’ve converted the upstairs of my house so now so I’m using full strobe light systems, I have a big huge box of different cameras.” The set up was also embraced by Michael and Sinéad’s cat Garfield who used to try and steal some of Michael’s subjects. He even makes an appearance in the book!
Having the studio at home might seem really convenient but Michael often had to transport species home from work on his bicycle. “One night I got a particularly big ray and I was trying to figure out how to get this back to the studio on my bicycle. In the end I managed to stuff it into my rucksack, with the tail sticking out over my head!”
It’s a short cycle for Michael into Dominick Street where Oscar’s Seafood Bistro is located. He and Sinéad opened their restaurant in 2000 and quickly became renowned for the quality of their seafood and the talented cooking. Theirs was one of the rare businesses that actually did well out of the recession thanks to a strong and consistent local trade and low property prices in Galway City. “It was really lucky for us in a way because up to that point, to buy a restaurant in Galway would have been next to impossible. So right in the middle of the recession we actually were able to buy Oscar’s outright. So we kind of came out of the recession on the right foot!”
Michael claims they weren’t the only Galway based business that managed to survive the bust as the city is so resilient. Thanks to a strong tourist trade and the trifecta of local employment (large medical companies, the university and the hospital), Michael says Galway was a good town to be in during the recession. “Nobody completely weathered it but I think Galway held its own very well. If anything it was good because it really focused everybody’s minds and sometimes you really need a bit of a wakeup call I think, it’s not necessarily always a bad thing.”
That focus in the industry has led to some great developments in Galway’s food scene, particularly in terms of self promotion. Michael is adamant that the city always had a great food scene thanks to their innovative restaurateurs and the local RTC, but it is now being widely recognised as a food destination thanks to groups and organisations coming together. “People are organising a lot better now I think and getting proud of the whole thing.”
Pride in local produce is certainly increasing all over the country and is something Michael has in spades. His philosophy is that buying local makes good business sense as the best ingredients happen to be what is available nearby. Michael does have an issue however with counties that are too strict on the idea and end up stifling national trade. “You have to define what exactly is local in Ireland because if something can be got to your kitchen within three or four hours from harvest, isn’t that local? It’s an interesting question because sometimes we get a little bit over obsessed with where we’re actually getting the foods. We should be looking at Ireland more as a whole maybe and not get too hung up about it.”
That being said, most of Michael’s seafood comes from Mary’s Fish, a local Claddagh fishmonger who Michael says is ‘one to watch’. One of the only female fishmongers in the country, Mary is particularly handy for getting you out of a tight spot when you are stuck and she embodies the ethos of responsible and sustainable fishing that Michael holds dear.
Any people within the fishing industry, we all want to be doing it properly because people don’t seem to make the connect that fisheries are a wild food industry and we have to protect that. I think anyone who has any kind of sense will do everything they can to promote sustainable fisheries, promote bi catch type species and so on because it’s their livelihood. If you don’t do this, ultimately prices will go through the roof, it will become an unsustainable industry and it will start crumbling. Nature has this awful habit if you don’t respect it, it won’t respect you back and we might think we’re bigger than nature, we’re not.
Michael is continuing his efforts to protect fisheries and marine life by expanding his work on Sea Gastronomy. He is collecting additional data, photographs and recipes for the first volume of the book and is already planning volume two: Mid Atlantic & Mediterranean species and volume three: the cold oceans. “What I’ve always wanted to do was to create a global type encyclopedia of fish and shellfish, of seafood. Well now it’s going to be a set but the good thing is now we have kind of a format to work to.”
Michael’s trip to the Gourmand Awards was an invaluable opportunity as he has now expanded his network of colleagues across the globe who are all willing to help in his Sea Gastronomy endeavours. As he looks to catalogue, capture and cook every marine species on the planet Michael is adamant that his day to day work behind the pass in Oscar’s will remain his focus. “The lads literally had to kick me out to go to China. I was like, I can’t go to China! So that was actually a big step for me to walk out of the kitchen on a Saturday night and go. I’m still very very much a real chef, I live in the kitchen.”
Sea Gastronomy is available from Artisan House. Catch Michael at the Galway Film Fleadh on July 7th where he will be taking part in a panel discussion after the screening of Atlantic. Click here for more details.
To book a table in Oscar’s Seafood Bistro click here.
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo