Meet Chef Ryan Shapiro: Executive Chef and Co-Owner at Key West's The Thirsty Mermaid

After traveling to Miami and Seattle to hone his culinary skills, Ryan Shapiro returned to his home of Key West. At the age of 26, he became the co-owner and executive chef at The Thirsty Mermaid, a new boutique raw bar that opened in February of 2016. We got the chance to sit down and speak with Ryan about his ties to Key West, the risks he took to follow his dreams, and how his island roots reinforce his loyalty to Three Hands Fish.

As an island native, the Key West ocean-first culture has always been a part of Chef Ryan Shapiro. While he’s now known as being one of the island’s top young chefs, his affinity for the water began long before he knew how to shuck an oyster. “Growing up, I was constantly skipping school to go diving and fishing with my friends, many of whom are now commercial fisherman,” he said. “My less-than-perfect attendance record eventually caught the attention of my dad, and he ‘recommended’ that I begin working in a kitchen to add structure to my life.”

What started as a means of discipline quickly turned into a choice. “I was immediately drawn to the kitchen because of my childhood passion for fishing and diving,” he explained. “Ultimately, cooking and fishing are very similar. They are both high-adrenaline activities that require complete focus and concentration.”

After graduating from Johnson & Wales University’s College of Culinary Arts in Miami and moving to Seattle to work at Canlis under Jason Franey, a James Beard nominated chef, Ryan returned to Key West to join the team at Blackfin Bistro. That’s when, according to him, everything changed. There, he met Tommy Quartararo, owner of both Blackfin Bistro and Antonia’s, and the two hit it off immediately. Their at-work friendship quickly poured over to post-work life. They began fishing and diving together and discussing their culinary philosophies. A dynamic and fresh partnership was born.

“Tommy’s a legend,” Ryan said. “He has the X-Factor – whatever that means or however you want to define it. His work ethic is next level. He’s sharp as hell, always ‘on’ and, most importantly, he has a knack for knowing what’s next.”

One day in early 2015, Tommy called Ryan and said that he’d like to open a new restaurant. While Key West has plenty of large-scale restaurants that shuck thousands of clams and oysters every day, Tommy said, the island doesn’t have a solid boutique raw bar. He wanted to open one himself, with Ryan leading the kitchen. Ryan instantly and enthusiastically confirmed his involvement. They seized the opportunity, and The Thirsty Mermaid was born.

At just 26 years old, Ryan became the co-owner and executive chef at Key West’s newest boutique restaurant and raw bar. And although it’s safe to say that Ryan’s risk in starting a business has already paid off, the move wasn’t without hardship; he invested everything he had– financially, mentally and emotionally– into making the restaurant’s launch a success. “I was immediately dead broke,” Ryan said. “I was honored to be in this position, but scared as hell. I invested everything in The Thirsty Mermaid. While we were building the restaurant, I was barely making it by, but Tommy remained calm and had complete confidence in the business.”

Specializing as a raw bar with simplistic, approachable dishes, The Thirsty Mermaid officially opened in February of 2016 and has been greeted with instant success by the Key West community and tourists alike. “We opened with substantial anticipation, and it did not disappoint,” he said. “I don’t think anyone, including me and Tommy, expected how quickly The Thirsty Mermaid would become a success.”

Aside from its creative dishes and laid back ambiance, part of The Thirsty Mermaid’s appeal can be attributed to the freshness of the ingredients. According to Ryan, when selecting vendors for the new restaurant, Three Hands Fish was the natural and obvious choice to supply the restaurant’s seafood. Three Hands Fish, he said, is the one vendor in which he is absolutely sure of the quality of what he is purchasing.

“When sourcing ingredients – be it meat, poultry, produce, veggies, or seafood – there’s a degree of trust involved,” Ryan explained. “You have to trust that what your vendors are selling is fresh, because you honestly don’t know. With Three Hands Fish, that trust isn’t necessary. Many of the Three Hands Fish fishermen are childhood buddies. I’ve literally been fishing with them in the morning, dropped the day’s catch of at their market, went back to the restaurant where I then received a text message from their Fillet Masters notifying me that what was just dropped off is now available for purchase. There’s zero mystery, just objective truth. I know that their fish is fresh because I’ve helped catch it.”

With just a few months under his belt as the executive chef at Key West’s newest boutique raw bar, Ryan is eager to continue pushing the envelope. “Tommy and I are hungry for success and we’re willing to take big risks and work long hours,” he said. “I think that many people fail to pursue their great ideas because they think they need to have all the information prior to doing so. Sometimes you just have to trust yourself, your abilities, and your partners, and just go with it.”