Ortega Fish Shack’s Davey McDonald
This guest piece from Alexander Bisley
Davey McDonald, the affable 29-year-old father of two young kids, manages/co-owns Ortega Fish Shack and Bar. At the 2014 Capital Awards— the Wellington region’s premier hospitality awards, voted by the industry— McDonald won Outstanding Maitre’d of the Year, and Ortega won Best Front of House Team. Ortega was 2014 Runner-up Best Specialist Restaurant at Cuisine magazine’s nationwide awards. Despite all the acclaim, McDonald’s still the only one who cleans Ortega’s bathrooms, leading from the front.
I have had colourful experiences in the kitchen, loads. It’s a colourful bunch that make up the industry out there, that’s for sure. Generally this industry is packed with good people, but there are a few weird and wonderful ones out there. (Not here, we’re a pretty small family-run shop). I remember one particular chef who was a psycho. Never ending swear words pouring out of his mouth. He was the type of guy who if someone gave him a plate of green beans and they weren’t cooked properly, next thing you know, a pan would be flying across the kitchen at someone. He’d be flying off the handle and smashing things. Once he cooked a steak for a customer and the customer sent it back because it wasn’t what he thought was medium rare. So the chef appeared with the plate again where he ripped it in half in front of the guy, telling the guy that he had no idea what he was talking about. Not the best for a front of house trying to clean up the mess afterwards.
Psycho chefs have been brought out into the open with shows like Hell’s Kitchen and in books written by Tony Bourdain. (I always enjoy Bourdain. Everyone in hospitality loves certain things more than others, but he’s just one of those guys who loves it all. He has so much passion for it and gets so much out of it). For us here, it’s very much a team environment. The front of house and the kitchen get along famously. If there are any issues, they’re brought up and discussed straight away. I’ve worked in plenty of places where it’s ‘Us vs. Them’, which is pretty common in restaurants they aren’t really nailing what they want to do. It’s a whole bunch of wasted energy, because instead of worrying about the ultimate goal and the happy customer out there, it’s all about making it difficult for each side of the fence.
We don’t have meetings, but every Saturday at 4pm, the front of house—and sometimes the kitchen, depending on how busy they are—try to catch up. It’s really informal: we might look at a few different wines to see how they compare, or we might try a new dish. We’ve had the team for so long that we all know what’s going on. But we try to make sure that everyone feels comfortable with everything. It’s a good opportunity for people to chime in, and if they’ve got any great ideas, thoughts, or feelings, it’s good to explore them. I met Anna [Limacher, his wife] working on the floor together at Cafe Bastille.
The guys in the kitchen are always thinking of ideas and working on stuff. Half the time, at least, they’ll put together a dish and it’s no good. They’ll have an idea, and they’ll try it out. It might not be a whole dish, but they’ll try something like a technique. It’s the same with food and wine matching: in theory, things might work, but when you put them together, it’s a disaster! Ortega’s chef Mark Limacher [also ex-Bastille boss/father-in-law], is always looking at things from the customer’s point-of-view.
Rick Stein’s “The simplest dishes are often the most profound” sums things up food-wise. It needs to be a start-to-finish experience, too. You go into some of the great restaurants in the world and the dining room is sterile. I remember when we lived in Sydney, there was this big group of us and we went to Claude’s for dinner. You walked into the room and it’s eggshell blue. There was nothing to look at, other than a white tablecloth; and the curtains were shut so you couldn’t see outside and people couldn’t see in. We had a good time, but we wanted it to be about the whole environment, with the feel of everything coming together to make a great night out.
Seafood is one of the great treasures that we have easy access to in New Zealand. It’s simple, delicious, sustainable and great fun to catch, too. Our love for seafood here is the reason we have a fish restaurant, where we are surrounded by what we love best.
The fish on our menu changes daily, which is determined by which fish we get in fresh in the morning. When I get chance to come in for dinner, it’s hard to go past the sashimi, which is a staple dish on menu with the togarashi and tamari lime dressing. I’m really enjoying our new Aromatic Stew of Blue Moki, mussels, cockles, golden raisins, and preserved lemon yogurt. For dessert, I always recommend the Catalan crepes or the summery white chocolate terrine.
I can’t say I haven’t come in for the beef however, with the fantastic Cafe de Paris butter and fries. I love horse. When Bastille was new, we did horse filet mignon steaks with a wine sauce and mashed potatoes and a few green beans. Awesome dish—horse is a really good meat. There were a few people who were quite upset about it.
The staff and I have been talking for ages about setting up a restaurant exchange. We had someone in last year from a little fish restaurant in Paris, and it was quite bizarre because some of the stuff was completely different, but a few things were completely identical.
The main focus here is that it’s a nice, relaxed environment. People should feel welcome. When I first got into hospitality, they always said you should treat people how you want to be treated. But how my 85 year old grandma wants to be treated might be a little different from me or my younger sister. We want to have a good time looking after people, and hopefully they enjoy it and feel really comfortable. It’s relaxed and casual, but we still pay detailed attention to the little things that make a good experience; like varying an interesting wine and beer list with lots of good non-alcoholic choices.