NEW YORK (Reuters) - Growing up the son of two chefs in Limerick, Ireland, Frank McMahon was probably to the kitchen born.
“I first tried to get into hotel management, but cooking was really my passion,” said McMahon, executive chef at Hank’s Seafood Restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, since 1999.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, McMahon settled in Charleston, a seaside vacation destination known for its dunes and antebellum charm, after working in Germany and stints in Los Angeles, Connecticut and New York.
McMahon, 47, spoke to Reuters about his love of the lowcountry, preparing seafood southern style, and why he called his debut cookbook, with over 100 recipes from the restaurant, “Cool Inside.”
Q: Why did you write this cookbook?
A: “It’s more than a cookbook. There used to be a Charleston institution called Henry’s Seafood Restaurant, where the waiters wore white coats. It closed down but Hank Holiday, a native of Charleston, felt the need for that type of restaurant again so he opened up Hank’s in 1999 and hired me as executive chef. Thirteen years later we felt it was time to catalogue the history of Hank‘s, Henry‘s, the city and the lowcountry.”
Q: What defines the cuisine of Charleston, South Carolina?
A: “They call it the lowcountry because we’re basically at sea level. We’re on the coast so we’ve got an abundance of great fresh shrimp, crab, different fish species like black sea bass, triggerfish, vermillion snapper. Indigenous ingredients include great okra, tomatoes in season, corn, obviously grits, and we’ve interwoven these throughout the cookbook. The recipes are true to the south. Obviously fried seafood is a big part of the history here, and we do that, but we also do the modern, more contemporary stuff.”
Q: What is your philosophy of cooking?
A: “Simplicity. I don’t like to get crazy with the number of ingredients. I like one, two, three flavors. Source the best fish and produce and let the ingredients speak for themselves.” Q: What are the special challenges of working with seafood?
A: “It’s not forgiving. One second can take it from good to bad. A lot of people overcook seafood. If you’re searing, is the skin on or is the skin off? And what sauce? Those are challenges we face all the time. I like acidity, so I do a lot of vinaigrettes and oils to complement the fish, as opposed to masking it with heavy cream sauces.”
Q: What staples do you depend on?
A: “Fresh fish, great vinegar, great oils and simple, fresh vegetables. We use at least 10 to 15 purveyors. One guy just gives us cucumber and lettuce. Another fisherman lets us know what’s on his boat so he can pull up and deliver the stuff. One guy might have fantastic cherry tomatoes so we’ll source from him just for that ingredient.” Q: Is there a signature lowcountry dish?
A: “Shrimp and grits is definitely a staple of the lowcountry and a signature dish at Hank‘s.”
Q: Has your childhood in Ireland influenced you?
A: Without a doubt. I grew up in Ireland back in 60s, 70s and 80s and seafood was everywhere. We had great smoked salmon, crab, and shrimp, or prawns, as they call them over there. I’ve always found seafood more interesting.”
Q: Any advice for cooking seafood at home?
A: “Keep it simple. Don’t over think it, and definitely don’t overcook it. Find a good fish monger. Get fish that’s supremely fresh. Fish should never have an odor. It should smell like the sea and nothing else.”
Q: Why did you call the book “Cool Inside”?
A: “On the front of our building are two murals and one of them says ‘cool inside’ because the temperature in Charleston in the summer is pretty much London broil, so people like to see that you’ve got good air conditioning.”
Sauteed Vermillion Snapper
Cucumber Potato and Goat Cheese Vinaigrette
½ cup diced cooked and chilled potato
½ cup diced cucumber
½ cup crumbled goat cheese
¼ cup dice tomato, seedless - flesh and skin only
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup strong chicken stock
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon combined of chopped chive chervil and tarragon kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper Combine the above listed ingredients in a medium sized bowl and gently mix, adjust seasoning to taste and spoon over the snapper .
Feel free to substitute other species like tuna, halibut, or salmon 2 tbs canola oil
4 each 5 to7 ounce filets of snapper
kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
Heat the oil in a nonstick sauté pan over high heat. Season the filets on both sides with salt and pepper. Place the fish in the sauté pan and cook through, turning once, about 3 minutes per side.
Reporting by Dorene Internicola; editing by Patricia Reaney