Sean Connolly sits grinning at the back of an old fishing boat that has stopped off the coast of Dibba, Fujairah. He has just slurped down a big, fat oyster fresh from the Indian Ocean and lets out a little sigh. "I'm in chef heaven right now," he says. "It doesn't get any better than this."
With the opening of his new, eponymous Dubai Opera location, the Yorkshire-born celebrity chef now has six restaurants, the rest of which are back in his adopted home country of Australia, as well as New Zealand. Fans of Connolly’s television shows and eateries will know that while his food ethos is firmly rooted in his grandmother’s West Yorkshire kitchen, he is also a self proclaimed “oyster nerd”.
Today, he is on one of his monthly trips back to Dubai to oversee his new restaurant, and has organised a road trip to visit Dibba Bay, an oyster farm in Fujairah that launched less than three months ago and is a first in the Emirates. A friend heard about the fledgling company and recommended it to Connolly, who leapt at the opportunity to serve the country's first home-grown oysters.
"It's a treat, coming out to see a supplier who is actually local; that is a rarity here," Connolly says. "I think it's really important to buy local wherever you can and there's not much in the UAE, and to be on the ground level of something this special."
Dibba Bay is the brainchild of Ramie Murray, a Scot who grew up in Dubai after moving to the emirate with his parents when he was 12. Although he studied industrial design, Murray eventually found his way to aquaculture and set out four years ago to create a local lobster farm. When the complicated hatchery cycle of the rock lobster created a roadblock, he tried oysters. It turns out that they thrive in the pristine, warm waters off the Fujairah coast.
“I was doing it in Oman, actually, and when we realised it was a goer, I came back to the UAE, where obviously I had grown up and I could talk to people,” Murray says. “I went straight to the Royal Court in Fujairah and they were really supportive. They were like, right away: ‘Yes, we can do it.’ They sent me up to Dibba.”
Everyone is used to French oysters, Murray says, which grow quickly in the summer but slow dramatically in the winter. In France, it takes about two years for one oyster to mature, compared to seven or eight months in Dibba.
“Here, we have an endless summer,” he explains. “We get the same growth France will get at its peak, all year round.”
Murray, who has been producing between 25,000 and 30,000 oysters per month for local eateries during these first months of official operation, says the demand is already there for 100,000. While he has a small production facility on Dibba Bay, the actual oyster farm is about three meters below the surface, a half-hour boat ride along the coast to less-busy waters.
A spray of bobbing orange buoys marking a series of graduated nets hanging below are the only indication it is even there. The process begins with tiny "spats" shipped from France, which are left to bump and buffet in the bay waters, periodically brought back for washing and to be turned over into different-sized nets. At Sean Connolly at Dubai Opera, Dibba Bay oysters are sold alongside more well-known varieties from countries such as France, Scotland and Ireland.
Murray enthusiastically explains the differences to Connolly while they pluck through vats of mature oysters that are being flushed with fresh seawater and then gradually reduced to a chilly market temperature of between 5°C and 10°C. "They take on local characteristics," Murray points out. "So they have that lean, meaty, briny character."
Connolly, eating one of the first of more than a dozen oysters that he will suck back over the course of the day, proclaims: "They are lip-smacking."
Interestingly, the men cut their oysters differently: Murray goes in from the side, where he can also slice the adductor muscle that tethers the mollusc to the shell in one motion. Connolly, who has shucked countless oysters in his career, goes from the back and cuts the oyster loose from the muscle once it is open. "I need to go in the hinge," the chef explains, cradling a closed shell in his hand.
Connolly remembers first trying an oyster – and loving it – in his early teens, while on vacation with his parents in the south of France. They have been “his thing” for years now, he says, confessing that he has been known to eat up to three dozen of the molluscs in a single sitting.
Back at his restaurants in Australia, he can sell thousands in a night. It is a level that he is hoping to replicate in his Dubai restaurant, which has been promoting the gems on a half-shell by selling them for Dh5 on Thursdays. “We want to break the myth of what oysters are all about; they are an affordable luxury and everybody should enjoy them,” Connolly explains.
“It’s not to everybody’s tastes, but there’s kind of a subculture of oyster eaters. There’s a lot of people who like oysters. I would say five out of 10 people like oysters – it’s a 50/50 split.”
His Dubai eatery has already attracted its share of those "oyster nerds", from all sorts of backgrounds, including Emiratis. "Instead of just having six or seven, they are buying two or three dozen for the table," Connolly explains. "They're just enjoying a good oyster. So it's important to me."