No Fishy Business Here: Martin Shanahan on his Mission to Take the Fuss Out of Fish
“The name was a little bit of an accident,” admits Martin Shanahan, of the Cork culinary institution Fishy Fishy restaurant in Kinsale. “We were originally The Kinsale Gourmet Store and Seafood Bar, but there was a craft shop close to us, called Fishy Fishy. When they closed down 15 years ago we asked if they wouldn’t mind us taking on the name.”
“Some people, I guess the ‘connoisseurs’, say Fishy Fishy sounds a bit cheap – but I think the name does exactly what it says; if you want to eat good seafood come to Fishy Fishy.”
Somehow I don’t think ‘The Kinsale Gourmet Store and Seafood Bar’ would have hooked people quite as successfully as Fishy Fishy has; becoming both one of Ireland’s best-loved seafood restaurants and a launch pad for Martin’s career as a leading seafood chefs and TV personality.
Martin spent his early career working in The Butler Arms in Waterville, before moving on to become head chef at the popular Jim Edwards restaurant in Kinsale. There he began a romance with not only with seafood and the coastal town, but also with his now wife, Marie.
The couple spent a few years in San Francisco, where Martin’s love of fish cookery intensified, and on his return in 1990 he proved his commitment by setting up the original Kinsale Gourmet Store, a small fish shop and deli in one.
“The idea was just to go with the business and see what happens, but back in the day, in the early nineties, there weren’t many seafood restaurants around. People would come in the door of the shop and say ‘that looks lovely’, but they often didn’t want to buy and cook it themselves. We decided that we would set up a little cafe beside the retail business.”
The town’s first dedicated seafood café was a huge hit, so much so they regularly had to turn away customers. “Initially I was spoiled in the fact that Kinsale was a tourist destination and the tourists loved the seafood. Irish people were slow to eat it initially but they got into it as people expanded their palates and became more educated about seafood.”
In 2006, Martin purchased a large gallery in the town and converted it into the formidable Fishy Fishy Restaurant, where ever since he has poured his passion and skill for seafood, with his background as a fishmonger ensuring that the restaurant only serves the best of fresh fish from the waters off the south coast of Ireland.
“I had built up a great rapport with the local fishermen and I knew what was in season, what was coming in to season, what was the best quality.”
Of course, as the business grew so too did his personal mandate to spread the word of the value of fish. As he puts it:
“Fish is nature’s fast food. It is a gift, not a commodity, and deserves our respect.”
On a mission to share this philosophy he stepped out front behind the stove and onto our screens, a career change which he has taken to like a fish to water. “I did my first TV series, back in 2011, called Martin’s Mad About Fish and it grew to a second series. There was a good appetite back then for a show of that style, people wanted to be educated about fish – no secrets, just tell it as it is.”
Despite being an island nation, having toured the country filming other RTE shows like Martin & Paul’s Surf n’ Turf, with chef Paul Flynn, and The Taste of Success, and as an ambassador for SuperValu’s Good Food Karma campaign, Martin is well aware there is a lingering reluctance in Ireland to cook with fish at home.
While puzzled by the irony, Martin says in some ways understands why people might be nervous to handle and cook with such a delicate protein.
“There is a skill in cooking with fish, but there are things we can do to make it as simple and convenient as possible for people to cook with it at home.”
He says by getting your fishmonger to take the bone out and the skin off you lose the fuss and the fear that is associated with fish in the process. He is currently working with the fishmongers in SuperValus across the country to encourage them to make a product that is as convenient as possible.
On his work as a Food Ambassador for the supermarket, Martin says: “this year our goal is to encourage to people to eat fish twice a week, instead of the traditional once a week. Getting people to incorporate it into their diets more and more.”
“It’s most important to build up a relationship and trust with your fishmonger. Trust their judgement and choose fish that’s in season – that’s the golden rule.”
On maintained the long term vitality of our oceans, and choosing sustainable fish martin says: “What we have to do is use the under utilised fish. Gone are the days when it was cod, and only cod.” He enthuses about the underrated ray wing, and says he sees hake and haddock growing in popularity.
Fish bought, the next hurdle is cooking it, and Martin has some tips for cooking ‘nature’s fast food.’
“Fish itself has quite a neutral flavour, it has a taste of the sea but it needs a little lift, a little seasoning, some lemon to bring out the best flavour. I like to put an Asian twist on it with some ginger, coriander and chilli. If you want it cooked simply, there’s no nicer dish than a piece of pan-fried hake with a bit of lemon, seasoned with salt and pepper and cooked in Irish rape seed oil.”
Other go-to dishes in the Shanahan house are baked fish, sealed in an oven-proof bag or tinfoil with herbs, lemon and a knob of butter, and linguine with prawns, “pasta and fish work great together.”
His latest role as ambassador for the Aramark Cork Airport food outlets (a new bistro and bar due to open this month and a food court will open in May) will see him bring great Irish seafood, and other local produce to the travel hub as part of an ongoing €4 million investment programme. “I will be working with Aramark and their chefs to design a menu that uses as many of the wonderful, local producers here in Cork as possible.”
As much as he is on a mission to get the nation cooking and eating fish, Martin says he has no plans to open a second Fishy Fishy.
“Running one and running it well is enough. I would hate to dilute the product by opening a second one – and on business terms, staff are very hard to come by at the moment, it’s a big issue in the industry. So if you want to eat great seafood, come to Kinsale!”
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 completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters 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.