Simon Lamont is a man whose passion for food, in particular oysters, is causing quite a stir in the UK and Ireland. Dee Laffan speaks to the Dublin-born chef and entrepreneur about his latest projects in London, Irish oysters and what all the fuss is about?
“I am in the oyster game. It’s my passion,” Simon states. “I have worked in the oyster business here in the UK for the last six years with the big boys – the Wright Brothers. They are seafood wholesalers, who used to be oyster farmers, and they run five oyster restaurants, with a sixth about to open. I held several positions with them, from chef to general manager at their original restaurant in Borough Market. I then helped create and open another branch with them – SHUCK – and was involved in brand and product development too. It was a really good time and I love what the Wright Brothers do, but I left them earlier this year because I wanted to do my own thing. I really want to do oysters in my own way for a different generation and bring them to a younger crowd.”
In the past, this has been the crux of the issue surrounding the popularity of oysters. They were seen as something expensive, eaten by an older generation. However, Simon is at the forefront of a new wave of oyster culture, made up of many chefs, influencers, seafood producers and consumers, that is making its way across the UK and Ireland. In fact it’s an international trend, as Irish oysters are becoming an ingredient a la mode in countries like China and Japan. Harty’s Oysters from Dungarvan, County Waterford cannot keep up with the demand of China’s love affair with Irish oysters, exporting almost 20 tonnes a week. But what is it about Irish oysters that makes them unique?
“If you grow your oysters in good water you’ll have good oysters.”
“I equate it to wine. No winemaker goes out there to make bad wine and it’s the same with an oyster,” explains ‘oyster master’ Simon Lamont. “No oyster farmer makes bad oysters, but there are different types of oysters out there and they all have special features and tastes. It’s really all about the water. In Ireland, we are lucky to have good water and a small population, so the water is quite clean. If you want to grow oysters, you put them in the best water you can with lots of great nutrients in it. That’s what makes a healthy oyster and when you have a healthy oyster, they taste better! We call it ‘merroir’ – when you taste the oyster you are tasting the water it comes from, it is of the area it grew in, whether that is Bantry Bay or Carlingford Lough, for example. It’s a geographic location tag.”
From oysters to BBQ
Simon has recently opened up his latest seafood project – &Rocks Oyster Grill at the 40ft Brewery in Dalston, London, serving up raw and grilled oysters twice a week to hungry beer drinkers. “The concept of an oyster grill was at the forefront of my mind. People don’t think about grilling oysters, they assume that they’re always going to be served raw which does put some people off. People who like to have their oysters raw can do so because we have to pop them open in a raw state anyway. But for those who don’t like them raw, or have never tried a grilled oyster or maybe never had an oyster [full stop], a great way to get them into it is grilling them. They turn out just like scallops or mussels or any other shellfish, they are delicious!”
“So that’s the concept, it’s called &Rocks and it all revolves around a big steel BBQ, one of those big old oil drums. A friend of mine said that he had a corner in his brewery that wasn’t being used and asked if I wanted to put my oyster grill there, so I thought ‘yeah cool!’ At the moment, we are open Fridays and Saturdays. It is weather dependent, so my next step is to find somewhere more winter proof and when I do we will be open more days,” he explains.
“I started the menu with just oysters, raw or grilled, then added in a few other little dishes. I had to take into account that people are drinking beers so they need a bit more fodder! I have started using Irish beef on the BBQ, which is another product I’m really passionate about. I braise some beef cheeks off-site and bring them in and finish them on the plancha. I stuff them into local brioche rolls which are baked in the bakery across the road, and fill them up with horseradish, homemade pickles and shredded romaine lettuce. It’s a lovely hot beef cheek bun, which I sell for a fiver. Alongside the oysters of course.
“It’s like your chophouse and oyster house coming together and it has a fun, street food vibe to it.”
“I get my Irish beef from a butcher in Smithfield Market early in the morning and I do seek out Harty’s Oysters because Joe is a good friend of mine and an oyster legend. He and his family grow some of Europe’s best shellfish. I get his oysters from Billingsgate in East London and even if the price goes up, I’ll still take them. There is a loyalty there and they are just banging good oysters. People really taste the difference too!”
Testing new concepts
&Rocks Oyster Grill isn’t Simon’s only project at the moment, along with appearing at many food festivals throughout the year giving cooking demonstrations and talks on oysters, he is also involved in a Greek restaurant in Acton, West London called Tailor Made.
“The restaurant recently opened, it’s owned by my girlfriend’s family. It is a really cool neighbourhood place and is already becoming popular, we’ve had some critics in too” Simon says. “After I helped them out for their opening, they said they’d like to do some oysters! I thought it might too hard do something like &Rocks in that location, so I came up with the idea of doing a special menu of oysters and burgers – oyburgers! The concept is family-style dining on Wednesday nights, with big trays of oysters and burgers. We use a really good blend of meat, with brisket and rib eye, that we make ourselves in Tailor Made. A tray of oysters are £12 and burgers are £12 and we do hand cut fries too. If people don’t like raw oysters, we do our own cooked style, which is like a baked oyster in a buttery sauce. We are looking to do it on more nights because it is so popular. We’ve had a lot of couples coming in for dinner and sharing a burger and a tray of oysters, and during the day we have families in and the parents have oysters and kids have burgers. It just works!”
“I am serving oysters to the masses!”
“I currently have one foot in east London and one in west, very oyster-centric, but the people are connecting with it.” But I had to ask him if he had any plans to bring his oyster ventures back home?
“I definitely want to open something in Ireland. Part one of the dream is to go somewhere and make it there and then the second part is to bring that dream home. There are some great oyster places in Dublin, but I think I can bring my own way of showing people oysters.”
“There is also something else we do in &Rocks, it’s something I am working on in the background at the moment and that I am really excited about. It’s to do with what you do with the oyster shells after you’ve eaten the oyster. At the moment they mostly go into the bin as waste and ultimately end up in landfill. But actually when you look at it, it is a beautiful thing, not to mention full of nutrients if used in the right way. I am working on a way to use these shells so they don’t become waste. One thing you can do is make oyster reefs from the shells, that grow and lives and breathes in the sea. It’s just the start of it, so we’ll see what happens with that! I am involved with London Oyster Week, which is happening in 2018 and a big part of that is oyster recycling. Watch this space!”
Photos courtesy of Simon Lamont