The story of Sharkbait & Swim
24 Jan 2022
Steve McClarty is the chef-owner of Deptford’s latest seafood joint, Sharkbait & Swim. He’s also the kind of food entrepreneur who, in a few years from now, won’t even need an introduction. From South London to coastal Kent and back again, Steve’s story is one for the books.
“I got my first job at a gastropub in Whitstable. That was wicked,” said Steve McClarty, recounting the beginning of his career with characteristic glee. “I found a family environment, where I was needed, respected, and appreciated”.
It’s a culinary journey – one of self-discovery, really – that began twelve years ago, when Steve started watching YouTube tutorials and realised he had a knack for cooking. At the time he was bouncing around youth hostels in South London, and sick of living on what he calls “crap food”.
“I was learning to cook lots of one pot wonders and stews. I was feeding people around me and getting good feedback. It’s then that I developed a passion for food”.
So at the tender age of 19, he picked up and moved to Margate, enrolling at a college near Broadstairs to study cookery. It was there that he honed his professional skills, and learned bigger life lessons about determination and success. “There was one time I had to make a soufflé and I couldn’t get it right in the class, so I practiced at home, whipping egg whites by hand. I went back to college the next day for my assessment – a chocolate soufflé – and I smashed it, I had the perfect rise,” said Steve. “I knew then, that if you put the work in, put the practice in, and give 100%: then you’re going to succeed.”
Steve worked his way up the proverbial ladder at different restaurants, including Michelin-starred Thackeray’s in Tunbridge Wells. “I was getting up at 4 am, getting a train from Margate,” recalled Steve. “We were doing 18 hour days. The head chef was a total nutcase. I was learning an incredible amount. The [haute cuisine] kitchen was something I never experienced before.”
After stints at seafood spots all over Kent, he ended up being scouted by BBC2 and appeared on cooking competition show The Chefs’ Brigade. “I didn’t think much was going to come out of it, to be honest with you.” (Famous last words). Steve made the top 10, cooking and travelling across Italy, Norway, Spain and France.
From there, he landed a gig as an events chef for Google. Then, as it has a habit of doing, COVID hit. Steve spent lockdown living on a narrow boat, building a business plan for the ultimate dream – opening his own eatery. The first toe dip? A pop-up in Lewisham, what he describes as “a platform to get on the business ladder.”
“My own restaurant has been the dream since college, everything I’ve done since has been focused on that,” said Steve. That meant when life led him to famed restaurateurs like Chefs’ Brigade host Jason Atherton, he didn’t hesitate to get the lowdown. “I asked all the chefs and owners I worked with about what it takes to run a business, what it takes to run a kitchen. How do you make money? I’ve always been learning as much as I can in order to get to this point”.
Appear Here caught up with Steve in the early days of Sharkbait & Swim, his seafood joint in a railway arch just outside Deptford train station. “I love it here. It’s so sick,” he said. “South London has got a vibe to it I haven’t experienced anywhere else. Deptford is an up-and-coming area, you can get reasonable prices on decent places here,” said Steve.
“It feels as though I’m here at the very start of something special in this area.” Diners would agree – with followers, locals, and fans from his Lewisham pop-up turning up at his door. The feedback? “It’s been incredible.”
“Food is definitely love, it brings people together. Food is art, food is personality,” said Steve. “When you come into a restaurant, you’re getting that chef's personality on a plate.”
And what a big, determined, and colourful personality it is. “I kind of feel like the kitchen chose me, to be honest with you. Didn’t really have a choice,” said Steve. “I came into it and I was gripped. Never left, never will.”
What’s next in the cards? The vision is a mini-empire of Sharkbait & Swims. And God help whoever gets in Steve’s way.