Shuckingly yours, Paddy
That’s how Patrick McMurray signs off on his emails, reminding everyone of his passion for oysters and hinting at his Irish heritage.
McMurray, whose father grew up on Kenilworth, now lives in the Woodbine and Danforth area. Both his parents were teachers, and he often travelled to Europe where he was exposed to different cuisines.
He was introduced to the food industry through his first job at a butcher shop in the Danforth and Dawes area. He then worked in the downtown core as a busboy.
“The long and lofty goal for me was to have my own restaurant after I retired from being a teacher,” he said.
McMurray graduated from university with a kinesiology degree, but he never got into teacher’s college.
He learned about oysters as a teenager while working at Rodney’s Oyster House, where he worked for eight years as a manager and later as partner.
In 2001, McMurray opened his first restaurant, Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill, located on Adelaide Street near Church Street.
Soon after, he won a World Oyster Opening Championship title for oyster shucking in Galway, Ireland. That got him an invitation to appear on the Cristine Cushings show in 2003, on which he broke the Guinness World Record for fastest oyster shucking – 33 oysters in one minute. The previous record of 29 was set in 2001 by a Frenchman.
McMurray broke his own record in Beijing in 2010, when he shucked 38 oysters in a minute. He had actually opened 40 oysters, but two had not been fully detached and did not count. He still had six seconds left on the clock after shucking all 40 oysters.
“I’m sure I can do 44,” he said, noting that he hopes to break his own record again in the future.
In 2009, McMurray opened the Ceili Cottage on Queen Street just west of Greenwood in Leslieville. It’s a beer haven with a variety of Irish-inspired food and, of course, oysters.
“It’s been a roaring good fun the whole way through,” he said of the restaurant, which hosted its own shucking contest on March 13.
Due to McMurray’s extensive knowledge of oysters, he now travels the globe to teach others about the seafood.
“I didn’t become a teacher as I had planned, but now I go around the world teaching about oysters to those who want to listen,” he said. “I’ve gone around full circle.”
He compares oyster tasting to wine tasting, noting how one must determine the kind of oyster they like based on its size, saltiness, texture, etc.
“Most people think it’s just one thing – an oyster is an oyster is an oyster. But we are lucky we have five species of oysters in North America we can use, and within that there are many different variants,” he said.
Once someone determines the species of oyster they like, they can then explore the different variants within that species, sometimes upwards of 40.
Toronto is a great place for oyster variety, McMurray said, due to Canadian government regulations that allow us to buy oysters from Europe, which our neighbours to the south can’t do. McMurray has leveraged that to work with Toronto Tourism and promote the city as a favoured oyster destination.
“We go through 1,000 to 2,000 oysters a week here at the Ceili, and it’s not even an oyster bar,” he said.
As for that kinesiology degree…it turns out it wasn’t a waste after all. McMurray has designed his own oyster shucking knife, the ‘Shucker Paddy’, based on his experience. Instead of a straight knife, the Shucker uses a pistol grip at an angle from the blade.
“Your hand is on a proper alignment with this knife,” he explained. “Because it has two axis points it works like a lever…it’s ergodynamics, biomechanics and bio feedback coming together.”
In between running two restaurants, teaching the world about oysters and inventing knives, McMurray also hosts a web show called Refined. The show features people involved in creating “the finer things in life.”
And if that’s not enough, throw in raising two children, Laiden, 16, and Spencer, 13, who are themselves busy with not only school, but also Irish dancing. They belong to the Gilchrist-Canavan School of Irish Dance which is conveniently located behind the Ceili Cottage.
What do they think about this whole oyster thing?
“The kids think that oysters are icky,” he said with a laugh.