When Patrick McMurray closed his eyes yesterday, his feet were planted squarely in St. Lawrence Market, but his senses took him to Galway Bay in Ireland.
"I can smell the actual air of the west of Ireland," he told OurFaves. "Not many things can do that. You can taste what the water tastes like where it came from because when it closes up, it takes everything with it like a little tiny suitcase of flavour."
McMurray, a world-class master shucker was talking about oysters, the topic and sea creature on which he has built a career and gained widespread notoriety. Not only is McMurray the proprietor of Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill in Toronto, but he also holds the Guinness World Record for the most number of oysters shucked in one minute. At last count, McMurray had done 38. Last night, however, speed was beside the point. During his stint at St. Lawrence Market's Executive Chef Series, McMurray led a master class on how to appreciate the nuances and intricacies of oysters.
OurFaves caught up with the oyster maven following his presentation and asked him about distaste for sauces, Toronto's oyster scene and if he ever tires of the little sea creatures.
How did your passion for oysters start?
I had my first oyster when I was 16 years old and at the time, I was with Simon Bower who now owns Lucien Restaurant, he was a waiter where I was learning the waiting trade at Beaujolais Restaurant. This is 1985. He said, Patrick, cover the front door, make sure chef doesn’t come in. I go, what are you doing? And he says, I’m going to open some oysters. So here he is fumbling around with a butter knife trying to crack open this oyster and he gave it to me and I’m looking out for the chef because you always worry that you’re doing something illicit and it was the flavour of the ocean. That was where it sort of started. I just got interested in food and general since I was about 16.
I got into oysters probably when I was at Rodney’s at the time, we were shucking a thousand oysters a night and it was where the spotlight was. That’s where it started – 18 years ago.
Why did you take part in this Executive Chef Series event?
I love the market and I love this facility. The kitchen itself, it probably has the best view of the city from the downtown core. I’m looking at it while I’m talking, which is great. And it’s just got a great historical part of the city. It’s important to stay close to your history and close to your roots. I’ve been around the market now for almost 20 years, working at Rodney’s and Starfish. It’s just part of the neighbourhood.
What’s your favourite variety of oyster?
I’m away from them now, so they can’t hear me because I can’t talk about my favourites in front of the children. My palate tends to lean towards the stronger flavoured oysters. So the European flats, Irish Galway Bay oysters, the loch ryans are fantastic. I just got some Welsh oysters in and they’re fantastic as well. The ocean brine they have over in Europe is much different than what we have over here. I find that the Ostrea edulis species more interesting in that sense.
What is the oyster business like in Toronto?
It’s great because we got really good at importing oysters. We have a better variety of oysters in Toronto than you can get anywhere else in North America and I would probably argue, the world. I don’t like tooting my own horn, but I’m tooting Toronto’s horn in the fact that Rodney’s and Oyster Boy and Starfish have got such a great variety of North American east coast and west coast. We buy from New Zealand, I buy from France, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England and I have ideas for doing further afield as well. And when I go to places like Asia or Europe, I can see what they get and they’re only in the two to three different types.
This is actually an oyster town. And it’s historically correct as well since the 1800s. And now we’re into an era where we’re finding that we get great importation and fantastic quality. We’re working on sustainable agriculture oysters from the east coast, in Prince Edward Island. It’s all good.
I never knew Toronto was an oyster town.
You would never know. And the one basic truth is the fact that we don’t have our own local water. If you have local ocean, you’re going to use your local oysters so you won’t start thinking about bringing your oysters in from anywhere else. Toronto doesn’t have a local water, so we have to import from everywhere. It has to come in from somewhere so we just got very good at doing that.
What oyster record did you break?
I have the Guiness Book of Records, which is a bit of a dog and pony show. It’s just ripping the top of the bottom, it’s not doing what we do here, which is presentation. It was just speed. You rip the top of the bottom. I broke the first record which was 29 oysters in one minute. I broke that, I made 33 oysters. I went back in 2002 on the Christine Cushing Show and since then, I get calls at least once or twice a year to go and try to break the record from Bangkok, Shanghai, Florida. I got lucky this last time, I did 38 oysters in a minute, so that’s my new record.
What makes a good shucker?
The ability to handle your liquor and a sharp instrument at the same time. To make a good shucker, you have to be quick and clean. The oyster has to look like it has opened itself. So if you can get to that point where you can create a great oyster and put that out, that’s great. There’s few people who can do this, there’s probably a dozen people who can create a fast plate of oysters looking very well – but to be a really good oyster shucker, you have to be able to tell the stories. You have to be able to understand the differences of each oyster, much like a sommelier. There’s really only five or six people I can think of in North America that can do that.
In Toronto, you’ll find the highest concentration of university-educated oyster shuckers in North America. That’s a fact. Here today, right now, I have Lawrence David who has a Harvard background, I have the University of Toronto. Rodney’s kids are all university-trained. We can hold a conversation.
You’re very vocal about your aversion to sauce on oysters. Why is that?
The way I want people to learn about their oysters is without any sauce on it whatsoever. Sauce is great when you have one type of oyster. Yes, it can get boring if that’s all you’re having so you might want to liven it up with a bit of sauce. But honestly, there are one or two oysters that I will die-hard insist you don’t put sauce on – Olympia is one of them. It’s tiny. It’s got such a complex flavour that when you put anything on top, you’re going to lose it. You won’t taste it at all. I’m not against it, but when you’re learnng, I want you to learn the basics, what Mother Nature intended.
Do you ever tire of oysters?
Never because oysters, when they come in, change on a weekly basis. Not only seasonally, but weekly as well. And it’s all dependent on what’s influencing the water it’s growing in, whether there’s high fresh water content coming in because there were a couple of big rainstorms. Every week, the oysters are different and it’s to see those subtle differences and the only way to do that is without the sauce. It’s the only thing that I’ve found, in the world of umami (a term referring to the savouriness of food) can transport you into an area. The Galway oysters specifically, is one of those oysters that I can close my eyes as I open it and I can smell the actual air of the west of Ireland. It’s fantastic. Not many things can do that. You can taste what that water tastes like where it came from because when it closes up, it takes everything with it like a little tiny suitcase of flavour.