In Ireland think we know a proper fish and chips; flaky, fresh fish encased in a crisp batter served with a hefty portion of hand-cut chips, laced with salt and vinegar, wrapped up in layers of paper with an optional side of mushy peas. However travel to ‘urban seafood kitchen’ Bia Mara in Brussels, created by Dubliners Barry Wallace and Simon Whiteside, and you will taste fish and chips that will blow your usual local chipper order out of the water. I leapt, like a salmon some might say, at the opportunity to share this Irish boys done good story and chatted with Barry about how they created the next generation of fish and chips, their emphasis on sustainability and their inevitable global takeover.
The story begins in Dublin peak recession 2011 when Barry found himself without a job. Over a pint with friend Simon, who had recently quit his job as a chef in London to pursue a new challenge, the pair decided to do something to combine Barry’s entrepreneurial qualities and Simon’s culinary skills. Spotting a gap for fresh seafood in the market scene, that Summer they set up a stall selling mackerel and chips and soon customers flocked like seagulls. That was until the Irish weather had it’s say, “once the rain came you were left with a lot of fish and no customers”. Though with a glimpse of Bia Mara’s potential when the opportunity arose to set up a bricks and mortar shop the pair jumped at the chance, not in their hometown however but in Brussels.
Despite not having a word a French and Flemish and a nervous, slow first few months they won round the locals with their first taste of fish and chips and satisfied the cravings of the throngs of expats in the city. What’s more the Irish delicacy was a perfect match for Belgian craft beer, a factor they hadn’t even considered. In 2013 their big break came when appeared on the front cover of Ryanair magazine. “My mum didn’t believe I had a restaurant until Simon called into her with a copy of the Ryanair magazine with me pouring a beer on the front” Barry laughs. An avalanche of press followed, “We were in every single Belgian magazine; Elle, Marie Claire, Agenda. Every national newspaper did a feature on us”. Now with a National status it is not unusual that they sell out and close early as demand outweighs supply.
Though the quiet early days in Brussels did give them the freedom and time to experiment. Simon, who is classically trained, used Japanese techniques, tempura and panko breadcrumbs, and a plethora of herbs and spices to completely reinvent the humble comfort food classic. “It was only at that stage that we realised that this could be something big, that we could take this fish and chips concept all over the world” says Barry. Today their repertoire includes over sixty different styles of fish and chips; such as mackerel in Cajun spiced panko breadcrumbs with lemon Cajun sauce, served with their signature seaweed salted chips. They have also created thirty different homemade sauces, several homemade salts, a unique range of sides and most recently a range of ice cream. Barry’s favourite? “Ethiopian Berbere spiced Pollock, with berbere spiced sweet potato ketchup and seaweed salted chips”.
The Bia Mara tagline ‘Eat More Fish’ goes deeper than just serving delicious fried fish though. They are committed to only using seasonal fish that are sustainably caught on small boats, “the deal is whatever they catch we cook. They decide the menu if you will”. Fish that are regularly rejected, such as ling, gurnard and mackerel, take pride of place on the Bia Mara menu. Doubters are converted when they taste these ‘underrated swimming starlets’ transformed with a coating of North African, Caribbean or Asian spice mix. “Megrim sole is a mad looking yoke but it’s absolutely delicious. It’s as good as lemon or dover sole but it’s been discarded for years because it’s just ugly” Barry says. Sticking true to these values they also serve their food in recycled, re-usable, wooden packaging, and their take-away cutlery is made of 100% biodegradable corn starch.
In September 2014 they made the cross channel jump to London to open their UK re-brand called Hook in Camden Town. While the Belgians took their new school fish and chips concept into their hearts the UK was a harder sell Barry notes, “two Irish guys coming to the home of fish and chips to show them how it’s done; it was tough to get the locals on board. But we won everybody over eventually and now it’s flying”. They now count chef Yotam Ottolenghi among their regulars, “on a Sunday he has lime, mint and wasabi tempura with basil and chilli sauce. He says it’s the best fish and chips he has ever had full stop”, and Debra Meaden too made a similar declaration via Twitter. “When she was in buying the takeaway from me I felt like like I was on Dragon’s Den, I was sweating” Barry recalls.
A personal high point for Barry was being featured on a UK special of Diners, Drives-Ins and Dives, a hugely successful Food Network USA programme, where host Guy Fieri toured the UK checking out the best in street food and casual dining. The exposure sparked interest from across the Atlantic and plans for Bia Mara New York are in the pipeline for 2017. Having recently expanded to Antwerp and Brixon in London, a second location in Brussels and an opening in Brighton are scheduled for next year. “There are offers on the table to take Bia Mara all over the world; Australia, China, Japan, Germany, France, Spain, and a really famous DJ in Ibiza wants us to open there” Barry says. However, they will take their time building their empire, determined to “become a good, honest, fair brand that respects the planet”. With potential as big as their dreams whatever their approach success is guaranteed and well deserved for this duo. As it turns out us Irish do know a thing or two about the perfect fish and chips after all.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father, and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.