Bondings: Of all the fish in the sea - love at first sight for Michael and Sinead
Michael O'Meara says it was love at first sight when he met his wife, Sinead. And now the chef has produced a stunning seafood book
When Sinead Hughes went on a first date with chef Michael O'Meara in November 1993, she decided to lay her cards on the table immediately. They had met at a disco the night before, but her friend warned her to stay away from him, declaring that chefs always had their pick when it came to women.
"She worked with him and also said he could be really strict, so I thought I'd better leg it and do a runner," says Sinead, who was then 18. "Then he asked me to dance and I found I liked him. He was nice and had lovely brown eyes, and when I was little, I had a lovely dolly with big brown eyes just like his, so I said I'd meet him again. I decided it was best to launch first, and let him know that if he intended on messing me around, there was no point in continuing. It had to be serious."
Sinead and Michael were both working in Westport at the time, and the 22-year-old chef had spotted the gorgeous Galway girl and her red lipstick around the place a few times. Contrary to the reputation her friend believed true of his profession, Michael says he was very shy back then. "It was love at first sight for me," he says. "I was head over heels. Our personalities are extremely opposite, as I'm very technical and disciplined, and even though I like to hide away in the background, I still have fun. Sinead is the other side of the spectrum, as she's a complete extrovert and very personable. She remembers everything about people and everyone loves her."
Sinead says she was attracted to Michael's work ethic, and found him very kind and generous. She liked that he held doors open and had old-fashioned manners, and that he was an animal-lover. "That was essential for me, as I really love animals," she says. "We had Garfield the cat who was 18 when we lost him in January, and have two cats, Baby Gizmo, 13, and Fraggles, 7. Our dog, Daisy Boo, is nine."
Michael, 44, is from Clarecastle, Co Clare, and is the second-youngest of Bernie and Paddy's four children. His dad worked with Guinness Peat Aviation. He was interested in food from an early age, and was fascinated by the ocean and loved collecting cockles and mussels on the beach to cook as a child. The family had a mobile home in France and went there every summer, where Michael became immersed in French culture and food. Having been bitten by the bug at a very young age, he left school at 15 to train as a chef at the local regional technical college, beginning his career as a kitchen porter.
As his skills developed, Michael worked at Dromoland Castle and Guinness Peat Aviation, before going to France for a year. He returned to work at the newly opened JJ O'Malley's in Westport, ultimately taking over the lease there. He and Sinead ran that together for five years, and then moved to Galway to open Oscar's Seafood Bistro on Dominick Street Lower in 2000. It had three customers the first night and they struggled for six months, but the reputation steadily built up through the couple's hard work, persistence and talent. Now, 16 years later, it's a great success and hugely popular.
Michael and Sinead were engaged for 12 years, and were married in 2004. He attributes much of the restaurant's success to her fabulous manner with customers - indeed she won a national Rosemount restaurant manager of the year award a few years ago. As well as working there, Sinead, who loves swing and salsa dancing and hot yoga, is also in her first year of studying the psychology of counselling at NUIG. "I love meeting our customers and hearing where they're from, and seeing them come back again with happy faces," she smiles.
Sinead grew up on a farm in Bofeenaun, Co Mayo, as the youngest of Bridie and Billy's five children. She qualified as a hairdresser in Westport and worked in a salon for a few years, and then started working with Michael. "I said if he was stuck for something or even needed someone to mop the floor, I would do it for him," she says. "I should never have offered, as that night he phoned and asked me to come in and that was my entrance into catering. I took to it like a duck to water though. We have lasted this long working together and I run the floor and Michael runs the kitchen. Ultimately he's the overall boss with the final say, and that's how I like it - unless I'm right, of course!"
The restaurant is renowned for its seafood, and its fish and shellfish are all sourced ethically and euthanised humanely. Michael, who cycles everywhere, completed a degree in culinary arts and a master's in culinary innovation and food product development, and has just released a really special 440-page book, Sea Gastronomy: Fish & Shellfish of the North Atlantic. As he's also a talented photographer, the majority of images in the stunning and very comprehensive publication are also Michael's, and it aims to open up the world of seafood to people without intimidating them. Covering 122 species of fish, it's an easy-to-follow seafood recipe book that also has an encyclopaedic backbone on all of the fish, and has been described as 'a game changer in the way we understand, value and cook with the treasures of the ocean.'
The book is dedicated to his darling Sinead, and Michael says that one of the hallmarks of their relationship is that they have always backed and supported each other, while retaining their respective independence. "It's important to have different interests as it keeps things fresh," he says. "We can talk for hours and are always chatting and I think it's because we're so different in personality and come at things from completely separate angles."
Sea Gastronomy: Fish & Shellfish of the North Atlantic (€30, Artisan House) is available in shops nationwide and online at www.artisanhouse.ie
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