By Patti Morrow
“Cooking with my grandmother was my alibi,” said Paul Menta. Curly-haired, charismatic, with an easy smile and sporting his beloved Liberty Bell tattoo, Paul is one third of the dynamic trio behind Key West’s runaway concept Three Hands Fish.
Rough & Humble Beginnings
During his “misunderstood” youth in Philadelphia, Paul spent a lot of time with both of his grandmothers who were Sicilian and Italian. On many occasions, after doing “something wrong,” Paul would run to one grandmother’s house and pass the time cooking.
“She’d tell people, ‘Look, he’s been cooking with me all day, he’s a good boy,’” he recalled, unable to hide his smirk. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I really paid a lot of attention and developed a passion for it.”
Due to his feisty personality, Paul ended up attending a Quaker high school, where the teachers encouraged him to cultivate the things that he was interested in – history, science, chemistry, and how they related to cooking. They introduced Paul to Key West, Florida, because it was during the winter – not spring, summer, or fall – that he tended to get into trouble.
After high school, Paul jumped at an opportunity to visit Key West. “It was just like the Wild West on water and I fell in love with it,” he said.
Training: Formal, Informal, International
After graduating from the Restaurant School in Philadelphia and subsequent internship in France and Spain, Paul visited every state in the United States on his Harley Davidson. He learned a different style, technique or flavor in every state. He began to understand that if you approach people the right way, they’ll offer up their knowledge. Paul continued to use his personality as he traveled through Europe and South America, persuading people to let him into their kitchens.
“I’d ask, ‘Who is your favorite cook? And they’d say ‘Oh, my aunt so-and-so makes this,’ and I’d ask if she was around and if I could try it.” Sometimes they’d say, ‘Are you kidding me? You’re not coming into my house!’” But a higher percentage of the time he’d get in because people were very proud to show off their style. He compiled different types of recipes and began to create his own style.
“Everyone asks me what is my favorite style to cook, but I don’t know – just shove me in somebody’s kitchen and I’ll open up the cabinets and start using whatever they have or whatever’s available.”
One thing Paul insists is that you don’t call him “chef.” He claims that throughout his world travels, he’s only met 10 people that he’d consider a really good chef. They all had business skills, they actually cooked, they got their hands dirty, they designed, they taught, they sourced, they shopped and they created unique flavors.
The rest were “cooks” and he admits many of those meals blew him away. “You don’t “chef” for someone, you “cook” for them,” he insists.
Three Hands Fish Is Developed
Chris Holland, one of the other partners of Three Hands Fish, bought Ibis Bay – the former Blue Lagoon – eight years ago. According to Paul, the Blue Lagoon was horrific, probably the worst rated hotel and restaurant in the United States.
Chris tracked down Paul who was kiteboarding on the beach and said, “Hey! My name’s Chris… I heard you’re the guy to talk to about restaurants down here because you’ve got a passion for everything. I have the Blue Lagoon.” Paul literally walked away from him, wanting nothing to do with that establishment.
But Chris followed him. “I know it’s the worst place in the world,” said Chris, “but I want to re-make it into a 1950’s style resort and repurpose all the coral we found on the premises.”
Chris’ tenacity and passion resonated with Paul, and the two became friends and business partners. They had a mission; it wasn’t about making money, it was about making an experience. Ibis Bay was transformed into a waterfront boutique resort with a fun bohemian vibe.
“You’re on vacation, you’re giving up your free time to come and spend some of it with us. We want to make you smile and have a good time, and be happy that you decided to spend your vacation here.” Paul said. “And we want you to come back.”
Ibis Bay became ground zero from which Three Hands Fish was established in February, 2014, complete with a dock for fishermen’s boats, an on-site fish market, and The Stoned Crab restaurant.
The “Three Hands” Philosophy
Sourcing local, fresh product was the incentive for the concept of Three Hands Fish. The advantage of living in Key West is having access to an abundance of fresh — not farm raised — fish. The location between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic creates a unique mixture and breeding ground in the reef system which produces the pink shrimp and the Key lobsters.
The philosophy of three hands is that only three hands touch the fish in the chain of custody: the fisherman, the fillet master or fishmonger, and the consumer.
The traditional industrial seafood chain (86% of which is imported and unregulated) is very long, going through many middle men and hands. The result is that the origin of the product becomes obscured or lost. The country of origin is known because it’s required on labeling on all seafood, but if it is labeled from the United States, it could be from one of many regions.
“We wanted to have that transparency of where and how it was caught it was caught, “said Paul. “Not only is that information that people want to know, but it gives the fish an identity. It’s just a better product when it comes from right here, out of your own water.”
Brought in by more than 20 fishermen, the catch of the day is delivered right to the dock at Ibis Bay, where Tony Osborne, the third partner, commercial fisherman, and manager, oversees the daily catch unloading.
After the catch is unloaded and processed, it is then distributed on a first come, first serve basis. Text messages go out to restaurants and members informing them of the catch of the day.
“It’s a little bit of a free-for-all at the dock,” said Paul. “We usually run out of everything we catch, even the heads and the scraps called ‘taco cuts’ that we bag up and people make soups and stock. Everything is utilized.”
Three Hands Fish is developing its own app which broadcasts to members what kind and how many pounds of seafood are being brought in before it even gets to the dock. People will be able to order on their phones, and the number will click down on the app and indicate when that product is no longer available. That will avoid disappointment when members come to the dock only to discover what they wanted has sold out.
Currently, Three Hands Fish has around 300 members who pay a one-time $35 fee. They receive a starter kit consisting of a Three Hands Fish tee shirt, 3 cooler bags to keep the fish cold on the way home, and Paul’s cookbook Native Fuel which is about the culture of food in the Florida Keys.
Members receive the alerts when the seafood is at the dock, as well as “fish schools” where once a month the they are invited to an outdoor event on the sands of Ibis Bay with a specific topic where they are educated about fish — like cooking techniques, shrimp and how to filet. The event includes a cooking demo with a local chef. In July, Chef James from the Key West Yacht Club did pan-fried shrimp with a mango salsa.
The Stoned Crab
Paul Menta owns the onsite restaurant at Ibis Bay, The Stoned Crab. The diverse menu is mid-to-fine dining in a picturesque setting overlooking the canal and docks.
Due to the uber-fresh and variety of seafood, The Stoned Crab is one of the best dining experiences in Key West. Paul is constantly adding new recipes to the menu and is often seen mingling with the guests and even cooking up unique specialty treats in the kitchen.
Key West Corn On The Cob
Key West corn on the cob is actually….shrimp. The trick is taking the shell off the body but leaving the tail and head on which makes it easier to eat. Most of the flavor is in the head of the shrimp which most people tear off. Also, shrimp that has the head off is an indicator that it’s been frozen,
Raw pink shrimp in found only in the Keys. They’re pink because they rest on the bottom of the sea, which is very fine ground up coral instead of sand. They’re pink and they’re sweet. Further up in the Gulf the shrimp are brown because the bottom is brown.
Paul personally prepared for us a recipe for a new menu item he’d just developed, still unnamed. A combination of techniques and flavor pairings he learned through his travels in South America and Hawaii, the shrimp was stuffed with bread crumbs, garlic, cilantro, and local honey which facilitates the breadcrumbs sticking to the shrimp.
“This is not meant to be proper etiquette,” Paul said as he served it. “It’s meant to be eaten with your hands. It doesn’t mean you eat the head but having it on there makes it more flavorful. If I cook this and I bring you out a single shrimp that doesn’t have the head cooked on it, the difference is incredible. Leaving the head on also tells people that we’re not serving frozen shrimp.”
The verdict? HEAVEN.
Key West may be a small island, but Three Hands Fish is making a big impact with its seafood.
*Photos by Mart Harrod
About Patti Morrow
Patti Morrow is the founder and editor of Luggage and Lipstick – a travel blog for baby boomer women adventurers, author of the book Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone, and freelance travel writer with bylines in over 30 publications, including The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, International Living Magazine, Travel Girl, CNN iReport and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled throughout most of the USA and around 50 countries and islands abroad. Follow Patti on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
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