Fishheads at Byron Bay
Although most COVID-19 lockdowns have been lifted, life back to normalcy is not exactly straightforward. It would be nice to think we could literally shove the virus in a closet, seal it tight and send it out to sea never to be seen again, but sadly, that’s not how the story goes.
If we think our lives are still a tad strange, spare a thought for sectors of our economy like hospitality where social distancing and hygiene practices are hyper paramount to ensure a safe environment for patrons. One slip and the consequences could be untold.
Once when restaurants, cafes, hotels, breweries and alike could cater for a full house, there was some certainty about their prosperity, yet these days, they are negotiating their way around all sorts of hurdles just to keep their doors open and maintain a viable business.
One of those restaurants meeting all the protocols to give their dinners a great experience and safe night out is Fishheads at Byron Bay’s famous Main Beach, where magnificent views of the renowned Cape Byron Lighthouse, its backdrop, the Pacific Ocean, Julian Rocks, Mount Warning and much more, are a permanent feast of awe for the eyes.
For over 20 years, this well established and much loved beachfront dining and
takeaway venue has earned a reputation for hospitality in every sense of the word. Speaking to Founding Owner, Ralph Mamone, he told me that his restaurant was one of the very few that could and did remain open during the lockdown because he wanted to provide the community with a place of familiarity, whilst giving his staff some certainty.
“Even if we could only serve coffee and sell food from our takeaway menu, I sought to show loyalty to our customers and support the town and my employees,” said Ralph.
As Byron’s second longest running restaurant under the same ownership, Fishheads,
prides itself on serving the best of season, freshest seafood and produce available, sourced where possible, from local farmers’ markets and cooked to perfection by Head Chef, Sophie Desrosier, who honed her pastry and Italian cooking skills in Montreal and Italy, whilst also showcasing her expertise in America.
Ralph told me that his customers are the ones that help determine what is on the menu and if they want a certain type of fish, he will seek out the right supplier to meet that demand and if anyone can get that outcome right, it’s Ralph, as prior to buying his restaurant, he was a fishmonger. In fact, that’s the origin behind the name, Fishheads.
Without a scintilla of doubt, Ralph’s commitment to the exemplary quality and presentation of food served at Fishheads is a given, but so too is his need to have friendly and knowledgeable wait staff, many of whom come from all points of the globe, including, South America, Europe, South Korea and of course, from here at home.
Similar to many other businesses in the hospitality industry, the diversity of employees at Fishheads is like a mini United Nations and inclusive of people from different lifestyles as well,
yet very reflective of the make-up of our society, which is just what Ralph prefers.
“The many nationalities of my staff make for great conversations with customers who are fascinated to know where they have come from and secondly, those same people are no different to what we see on our streets,” he said.
“Regardless of my employees’ backgrounds, they all know the customers are to be treated as though they have been invited into our home which is exceptionally tidy and clean, where they will be looked after and served the best food we can afford.”
According to Ralph, “customer satisfaction, staff morale, a well managed business and an understanding that people want a memorable, theatre like experience in an ambient environment, are key to his longevity.”
Clearly, this approach is a winning formula and if history is any judge, further success is sure to follow for Fishheads. Just from observation, Ralph, ably supported by his Assistant Executive, Simon Cootes,
seems to read the market well and I’m not surprised, as he passionately explained his appreciation for the evolution of food and how we are the better for it.
Given what we are all enduring with COVID-19, I was curious to learn if Ralph had seen a noticeable difference in people’s attitude. Pleasingly, he told me he had. “What I have found, is customers are now far more obliging, forgiving and understanding and not so demanding, which is one of the very few good outcomes from the pandemic.” Ralph said.
The lockdown may have changed many things, but not Fishheads consistency of service, nor the creation of a better dinning experience through the availability of a smaller plate menu designed to give patrons the opportunity to share and taste a variety of dishes. What has also not been forgotten, is the needs of children with the creation of a kids’ menu.
Back on the agenda is the resumption of functions which is a speciality of Fishheads.
They are a seasoned host venue for private parties and weddings where everything is tailored, personalised and coordinated with the utmost attention to detail from beginning to end, to ensure the occasion is fondly remembered.
I can understand the appeal of the restaurant for so many reasons, including the beachfront outdoor deck, an enhancement added in 2003 to take advantage of the superb location and afford diners the enjoyment of breathtakingly beautiful sunsets in a relaxed and contemporary atmosphere.
Fishheads, as a fully licenced restaurant, seats 80 guests, or 100 standing, can be divided into two rooms and is open daily from 7.30 to 11.30 am in the morning to cater for coffee and breakfast, followed by lunch starting at 12.00 noon through to 5.30 pm, before the evening session commences at 6.30 until late at around 11.00 pm.
Not only is the restaurant a winner, so too is the takeaway service with its extensive menu and high standard of food that is offered daily from 8.00 am to 7.30 pm at night.
While perusing the takeaway menu, I spotted a promotion for the adjacent Byron Bay War Memorial Pool and their swimming lessons. Curious to know how this was connected to Fishheads, I asked Ralph, and to my surprise, was told he is the facility’s Caretaker, a job that allows him to be a contributor to his community.
“I would like to see this public amenity and its surrounds, which was paid for by the local people, not Government, upgraded, so I am continuing to work with the Council to make this happen. Not everyone can afford to eat in a restaurant, so we need to provide attractive picnic grounds and recreational areas that can be enjoyed by all,” said Ralph.
Looking back at the history of Fishheads’ location, I couldn’t help but see the synergy between Ralph’s involvement with the Pool and the fact the restaurant used to be the site of the original Bathers’ Pavilion built in 1951.
Fishheads is not the only successful venture for Ralph as he also owns and runs the Wharf Bar and Restaurant at Ballina and although catering to a different demographic, the property has also survived COVID-19, much to the delight of the locals.
Ralph made the point that treating both venues the same would not work. “Each restaurant caters to a specific market given the patrons are quite different both in personality and menu choice.”
It is well known that Byron Bay has a reputation of being a premier holiday hot spot, but with the absence of overseas visitors, I sought Ralph’s opinion on what the town can do to maintain its mantle and attract more domestic travellers at a time when other notable tourist destination across the country is wanting a bigger slice of that ever shrinking pie.
He said, “we have to present a united front, where the Council, Chamber of Commerce, business and every resident works together.”
A common denominator of my conversation with Ralph was he profound dedication and generosity to his community. He said, “I grew up in the Sydney suburb of Brookvale as a young Italian boy and have had a very fortunate life, so I wanted to give back to others, whether its through the success of my restaurants, helping staff to grow personally and professionally, or working as the Caretaker of the local pool.”
“I have made mistakes, but I am persistent and believe we learn and evolve as human beings and, that business is all about the relationships you build.” said Ralph.
BLUE SWIMMER CRAB MEAT LASAGNE
Preparation Time: 60-90 minutes
Cooking Time: 25-30 minutes
Oven Temperature: 180°C/350-375°F (preheated)
- 1 large brown onion
- 2 red chillies
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1 kg blue swimmer crab meat
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
- 300ml bisque or fish stock
- 2 leeks (only the white part)
- 100g butter (for leeks)
- 1.5 litres milk
- 2 cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon chilli flakes
- 2 teaspoons white peppercorn
- 70g butter (for béchamel sauce)
- 70g flour
- 250g dried lasagne sheets
- 80-100g parmesan cheese, shredded
Dice the onion, finely chop the garlic and finely dice the chilli without the seed.
In a large pot, cook together until golden.
Add the crab meat, cook for a few minutes and deglaze with the wine. Add the tomatoes and stock and cook for another 20 minutes on low heat. Salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.
Wash and chop the leeks finely. Melt the butter in a saucepan and add the leeks. Cover and cook on a low flame until soft. Salt to taste.
In a pot, heat the milk with the cloves, nutmeg, chilli flakes and white peppercorn. Let sit for 15 to 20 minutes to infuse, then strain.
In a large saucepan, melt the butter. Once melted, take off the heat, add the flour and mix together. Return to the heat and slowly add the hot milk, whisking vigorously to avoid lumps. Cook on a low heat until thick, then set aside.
Cook the lasagne sheets sheets following the instructions on the box.
To Assemble Lasagne:
In a deep dish baking tray, pour in some of the béchamel sauce and layer over the pasta. Add béchamel again and pour in half of the crab sauce. Add another layer of pasta, pour over more béchamel and cover with the buttered leeks. Sprinkle half the cheese over the top. Layer with pasta and béchamel again and add the other half of the crab filling. Finish with another layer of pasta, cover with béchamel and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.
Bake for 25-30 minutes.
Perfect with dressed salad greens.
Enjoy with a glass of a zesty crisp Pinot Grigio or your beverage of choice.