Journeys in Taste Interview with Niall Sabongi

Niall Sabongi sounds as if he’s out of breath. It is, he says with barely any prompting, “a bit hectic these days.” We hear you, Niall, we hear you. For the past few months, he has been working on the kitting out, the design, the opening, the hiring of the team and the slow emergence into real life of Saltwater Grocery, a Terenure (Dublin) food shop that will, notes the Irish Times, “change the way we shop for fish.” Now fully open (albeit still taking full recognition of current Covid-19 restrictions), the store, a business collaboration between Niall and classically trained chef Karl Whelan, is a new concept for fish lovers and aficionados of gourmet food. Here you can browse and mull over a truly tempting range of goods from the best of Irish and foreign specialty food producers. “If you come in,” Niall advised the Irish Times, “and want to have a glass of wine while you’re looking around and talking about fish, that’s absolutely ideal.” When restrictions relax, expect to see a cheese/charcuterie counter and a shellfish wet bar. So, yes, it’s a bit hectic but that’s a good thing, right? “It is, absolutely,” he tells me. “It’s good there so many things going on, as it’s the shift from everything being closed to being re-opened. The wholesale side of things is a big machine to turn back on again to that level.”

He should know. As well as business collaborator and restaurateur, Niall oversees his wholesale business Sustainable Seafood Ireland (SSI), which, he is happy to say, tripled its workforce over the past year. “It got busier physically because we started doing more things, diversifying, selling online, directly to the public, fish markets all around the place, seafood suppers, and loads of different things. We kept busy, kept diversifying, created new revenue streams, and it was great to keep everything going. We’re going to turn on the machine again and try to make sure we’re still at the same level we were at prior to it being turned off, and hopefully not lose all the new things we started. I know we won’t be able to do everything, so we might lose some. That said, we have spent the past four months planning for the eventual re-opening of society.”

Being the busy man he is, his sole attention (and, yes, please accept my apologies for the fish pun) isn’t focused on Saltwater Grocery. “That it’s up and running has left me a bit of time to refocus my attention back to wholesale and to try to ramp it back.” SSI, explains Niall, was started because as a chef/restaurant owner he wanted to provide “better fish, better provenance, more species, to understand what sustainable meant and what I needed to do to become that. SSI has been very much at the core of everything I do. I suppose everything else around SSI is an outlet for us to express our fishiness!”

Niall has always had the ‘fishiness’ quality about him. He was born into the business, learning from the age of six what it meant to be useful in the kitchen. His life, he says fondly, has been nothing else but food. “That’s all I wanted to do. I always loved the kitchen side of things and from the age of about 13 or 14, I worked in the kitchen. In fact, I was a trained chef before I finished school, but I also loved the hospitality side of it in terms of making people happy through food. Yes, there was never any doubt that this is what I would set out to do from when I was very young.”

And what about now? From the vantage point he is at now – from the business end to the hospitality aspects – what does he think he learned from his early life of discovering the pleasures and benefits of food, of working hours on end in kitchens, being mentored/advised by his father and broadening his knowledge of his chosen profession? Niall’s answer is part pragmatic, part philosophical.

“Well, it’s really a lifetime of learning, isn’t it? From a very young age, I knew this was what I wanted to do. My parents weren’t really delighted that I was heading into the business because it’s a tough job with very long hours. They soon knew for sure that it was what it was going to be, so my dad just gave me the most important piece of advice. He said that I’d better get to know how to cook, that if I wanted to be in the business but didn’t know how to cook then I might as well forget about it and that I wouldn’t be able to do it. I’ve always stuck to that, and if I’m ever asked for any advice, I tell them the same thing.”

Klaw the Seafood Cafe with chef Niall Sabongi. Copyright Miguel Ruiz

As we said, Niall almost seems out of breath, which is more an indication that he’s busy-busy-busy than anything else. Before he heads off into the great blue yonder (or, rather, back into his wholesale business) there is one question we need to ask, and it’s one of those short and simple ones. It goes like this: why fish?

“Ah, I’ve always loved fish,” he says with a genuine (sea salt) air of enthusiasm. “With my dad being Egyptian, we always had a lot of fish at home – everything from crabs and lobsters to all the shellfish and all the species. We’d go away on holidays and all I’d want to do is to eat seafood. I’ve always loved cooking it, too. It’s such a simple protein to cook – some people think fish is difficult to cook but it isn’t, it’s all about timing.”

He says that when he opened up Klaw, one of his Temple Bar jumping joints, it was “almost to feed my own habit! You couldn’t get affordable, accessible non-posh seafood in Dublin – it was always crisp tablecloths, massive wine lists, all of the paraphernalia. That’s fine, I love that style of dining – I worked in Scott’s of Mayfair for a number of years, and the restaurant was very much in that fine dining mode. Yet I just loved the buck-a-shuck style where you grab a couple of beers, some oysters and sit by the side of the road. You’d be on holidays, and you’d see people do that, but when they come back to Ireland, they wouldn’t order the same food. Why? Because they were never offered it, yet we definitely have the want and appetite for it.”

And with that, Niall Sabongi is off. There is work to be done and he’s the guy to do it. First you see him and then you don’t. You might say he’s gone fishin’…

WRITTEN BY TONY CLAYTON-LEA

Journeys in Taste Interviews are Sponsored by Lexus Ireland

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