The world is his oyster: Patrick McMurray, Owner, The Ceili Cottage, Pearl Diver, Oysterbar Consultation

Patrick McMurray, Owner, The Ceili Cottage, Pearl Diver, Oysterbar Consultation

One might guess that a conversation with a world champion oyster shucker and holder of two Guinness world records would focus primarily on oysters.

But they’d be wrong.

Though he holds the Guinness Book of World Records for most oysters opened in a minute at 38 – and most opened in an hour for a team of 10 at 8,800 – Patrick McMurray’s entrepreneurial spirit bounds ceaselessly. Whether it’s his Irish pub (which incongruently sports a Mongolian-style yurt), a degree in physical and health education, kinesiology and exercise science, an upcoming cookware line or ideas for serving up picnic lunches in a nearby park, McMurray has no shortage of pearls of wisdom.

Of course, there’s oysters too. An author on the subject, penning Consider the Oyster: A Shucker’s Field Guide in 2007, McMurray finds himself naturally inclined to the subject.

“I joke that I must have been dropped on my head as a kid or something like that,” McMurray says with a laugh. “The information that I learn about oysters just stays in my head, and I can blather on for hours on end about Latin names, species, locations. I think I’m one of the original people to start talking about oysters like wine, in Toronto at least, and paralleling that universe of wine tastings to oyster tastings.”

Humble beginnings

The son of two teachers, McMurray was fascinated by food at a young age. Summer vacations were most often in England, where he was amazed by the culinary curios from overseas. At 14 years old, his first job was as a butcher’s apprentice, learning to cut meat and make sandwiches on the weekends. From there, he was bussing and serving tables at the now-closed Beaujolais restaurant.

His goal at the time was to become a physical education teacher, with the hopes of one day saving enough money to open his own restaurant. While going through university, and working in an oyster house along with some buddies from school, McMurray realized that the restaurant business could provide the sustenance required to pay the bills, and he could have fun while doing it.

Eight years at the oyster restaurant honed McMurray’s oyster knife knowledge. His job as lead cutter was to grind knives for the crew. His kinesiology background kicked in as he coached the team to adjust their technique. As the shucking team entered contests and dropped time considerably, McMurray came up with another big idea – adding a pistol grip to the oyster knife.

“The pistol grip comes from the idea of an injection moulded ski boot. I needed something that fit more into my palm,” says McMurray. “I wanted an exact copy of my hand. So I came up with and moulded these things and started making them for people. (Chef and TV host) Anthony Bourdain’s got one; Geddy Lee (of rock band Rush), Michael Smith, Mark McEwan (both chefs) all have one.”

Expands brand

McMurray is working on a complementary line of accessories under the brand name Shucker Paddy – which is also his moniker.

McMurray opened his first Toronto restaurant, Starfish Oyster Bed & Gill, in 2001. The successful location ran until just this fall and has recently been renovated and re-born into Pearl Diver. McMurray also opened up an Irish pub, The Ceili Cottage, 2009.

The Ceili Cottage stands out not just for its food, fare, and entertaining operator, but even more for the winterized version of its 1,000-square-foot patio. Unhappy with the fact that a significant portion of his business was frozen over for eight months of the year during winter, McMurray brainstormed. First, he flooded the area and made an ice rink. After a couple of warm winters, he gave up and started searching for a portable enclosure.

“When you do a Google search, this ‘yurt’ keeps coming up, and I’m going: ‘No, I don’t want a yurt.’ My wife’s girlfriend lived in one in British Columbia for four years, and she’s a hippie. Hippies live in yurts! Then I kind of caved in,” McMurray says with his easy laugh. “I talked to my partners and told them about my goofy idea. ‘It’s going to leak,’ they said, ‘it’s going to rain; it’s going to be windy; it’s going to be cold. No one’s going to want to sit in it.’ But if we sell six parties, private, I think we can pay for the base costs and then roll it up and we won’t have to see it again. Or if it works well, then we can buy it, keep it, and utilize our space. We put this thing up, and we had so many bookings within two weeks that we decided to buy the thing. And now I’m thinking, what else can we do with the yurt?”

Polishes ideas

The just-opened Pearl Diver restaurant is also having great success, but from McMurray’s standpoint, there’s much work to do. The idea list includes an elevated patio as well as a take-out window for guests looking to dine in nearby Saint James Park in the summer. He’s looking to finish a new back room, which is to feature a selection of cookbooks from local authors, a hot sauce collection, and a small dining room where he can teach oyster 101 to guests.

Though very different, McMurray’s restaurants have a familiar theme.

“I want you to be comfortable and just have some fun in the place. I don’t want the place to be fancy. People always ask, ‘Can I wear jeans to your restaurant?’ And I say, you can put jeans on your head and wear your underpants, as long as you’re happy! I want people to be happy, and that includes my staff,” says McMurray.

Which brings us to his business philosophy – the keys to his success.

Unique philosophy

“I have this ultimate argument with some of my group members who say ‘the customer comes first,’” says McMurray. “Actually, no, the customer comes third. They’ll think that they’re first, and we’ll always tell them that they’re first. The idea is that the food has to come first, and then the staff have to be happy. The chef really has to be happy with what he’s doing, or else it’s going to be a slop and drop, and it’s going to show on the plate. Then who is going to be unhappy? It’s the customer. You get the ingredients, you get your food, you get your staff nice and happy, and guess what, when that plate comes out, it’s fantastic.”

With a never-ending to-do list, the enterprising restaurateur wouldn’t have it any other way.

“If it’s a 20-hour day, it’s a 20-hour day,” says McMurray. “But it doesn’t feel like a 20-hour day to me. I’ll get up and do it again tomorrow. It’s just what I do. There’s few people who like to do it that way. And yeah, one day I’d like to slow down a bit and just sit at the pub and enjoy the place, but not until I’ve finished all of my ideas. The thing is, they just don’t stop!”

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About the author

Steven Chester is the editor and social media community manager for Restaurant Central. His 14-year journalism background includes writing and editing for digital and traditional media. He is an expert in social media, online content and email newsletter development. Follow him on Twitter at @restaurantCRFN.

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