The Seafood Interview supported by BIM - Aldridge Lodge

BIM Seafood CircleMARILYN BRIGHT talks to our Seafood Chef Of The Year For 2013, Billy Whitty, of Aldridge Lodge, Duncannon, Co Wexford

Supported by BIM

A chef who has grown up living just 200 yards from the Duncannon quayside just has to know something about fish. In fact, Billy Whitty of Aldridge Lodge who has been named Seafood Chef of the Year 2013 can draw on a background of seafaring tradition and hospitality spanning the generations.

Billy & JoanneBilly's father is a crab and lobster fisherman, a brother-in-law runs trawlers off the south coast and in the past his grandmother ran the town's only hotel in a Georgian house overlooking the beach. Although Billy shared the family interest in good cooking at home and regular dining out at better restaurants peppering the south, his career path was far from certain. An application for a CERT course was not successful, “And I’m seasick in anything larger than a rowboat," Blly adds “So fishing wasn't an option.”

During school holidays, Billy had started a fish round, filleting fish straight from the boats and delivering in an inherited refrigerated van. He covered a lot of territory, with several restaurants as customers and selling house to house around Waterford. When Kevin and Catherine Dundon opened Dunbrody House nearby, Billy jumped at the opportunity of a kitchen job, working alongside Kevin and learning as he went. Within 18 months he was sous chef in the tightly run kitchen with its brigade of four and the country house hotel and restaurant was winning awards and raising its profile.

In addition to building skills and learning the workings of a professional kitchen, Billy met another young chef, Joanne Harding, who was to become his partner in life as wall as business. Eventually, at the age of 22, Billy struck out on his own and with Joanne, took over the lease at Horetown House, with grand 18th century rooms and well established business conveniently situated midway between Wexford and Waterford.

Aldridge Lodge SalmonHere the young chef continued to develop his own style, building on the principles of using best quality ingredients and making the most of local produce. “ Flexibility is key," Billy observes, "especially when you're dealing with seafood — you just have to depend on the weather and whatever is best on the day. I could never work from a set printed menu and I enjoy making up a new menu every day — even the old favourites can be tweaked to keep things more interesting for the kitchen as well as the customer. I cook what I feel like on any particular day."

Billy and Joanna moved on to open Aldridge Lodge in 2005 as a restaurant with rooms in a modem stone-fronted dormer home and were named Georgina Campbell's Newcomer of the Year in 2006. Set above the village of Duncannon with views of the beach and mountains, the dining room seats 34 and there are three guest bedrooms. With his business head on, Billy says they were able to set up without a huge outlay of money. “My sister's company did the build and it's designed so that it could be sold as a family house if the business didn't work out."

Most of the fish on Aldridge Lodge menus comes from local boats working out of Kilmore Quay, with scallops, hake, haddock, prawns, squid and monkfish appearing regularly. He acknowledges his luck in getting first choice of prime like black sole and turbot that Dublin chefs can find difficult to source. Naturally, lobster from the senior Whitty's boat is a house speciality, but like the other seafood, is subject to weather, " You can't put lobster pots oat in a run of bad weather" Billy points out, “They just get broken up."

Aldridge Lodge CrabcakeCrab is a popular starter served with homemade mayonnaise, tempura crab toes and peanut butter powder. Sprats are smoked locally and served with braised beetroot and creme fraiche while seared Kilmore Quay scallops come with red onion marmalade and toast made from Billy's dark flecked black pudding bread.

Keeping it simple and letting quality ingredients speak for themselves is a mantra, but the inventive chef enjoys playing with contrasts of texture and flavour. Thin slices of scallop go into crisp spring rolls to accompany pan-seared Kilmore Quay cod with lemon, caper and prawn butter sauce. Pairings of meat and seafood go beyond the usual surf and turf with twice-cooked pork belly teamed with squid rings and three textures of carrot — powder, purée andcrispy carrot noodles.

Tiger prawns never appear on Aldridge Lodge menus and Billy admits- annoyance on seeing sea bass appearing on a number of menus in the recent Waterford Festival. “Farmed sea bass is all coming from Greece,” he points out, “and wild Irish caught sea bass is illegal. With so much fresh fish available beside us, I just don't understand it."

Billy's menus are built around all that is local and home grown. With a plot of more than seven acres, there are polytunnels and raised beds to supply the restaurant with fresh herbs and prodigious quantities of vine ripened tomatoes and courgettes. Potatoes are from a local farm and more veg comes twice a week from Growers Direct, sourced from small allotments around New Ross. Salad leaves and extras like squash come from the parents’ farm and free range pork is reared by a sister.

Beef is 21 day dry-aged rib-eye and holiday menus feature wild venison paired with local mushrooms and a Christmas dinner pairs confit goose leg with char-grilled turkey escalope, spicy brussels sprouts, potato croquette, apple purée and cranberry gravy.

Altogether, 2012 has been a landmark year for Billy and Joanne, crowned with the arrival of their first baby during the summer. “Being named Seafood Chef of the Year was a great boost,” Billy adds, “and better still, Aldridge Lodge has had the best year since we opened.”

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