A Sea-to-Plate Adventure with Tim Nickey

Journey with the Lucky Shuck executive chef as he heads out to reel in a fresh catch, then back to his home to prepare a delicious meal

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Garlic and herb–crusted local mahi-mahi and Middle Eastern fattoush salad. Photography by Benjamin Rusnak
Garlic and herb–crusted local mahi-mahi and Middle Eastern fattoush salad. Photography by Benjamin Rusnak

Motoring a 27-foot fishing boat out of the Jupiter Inlet, past stately homes, morning exercisers in the park, and sightseers on the jetty, the boat’s captain, John Share, and Tim Nickey are engrossed in plotting the morning’s strategy, comparing notes on what’s running (kingfish, wahoo, cobia, and mahi-mahi) and where to drop their lines. The two have more than a passing interest in reeling in a big catch: Share is the manager of The Tacklebox, and Nickey is the executive chef at Lucky Shuck Oyster Bar & Taphouse, two of the eateries at the new Charlie & Joe’s at Love Street complex. They are headed north, toward Martin County (where Nickey resides), then out to sea for a little offshore action. On this lovely Wednesday morning, the duo has agreed to spend a rare day off of work catching fresh fish, which Nickey will then turn into a tasty meal at his Palm City home.

It’s clear they enjoy any excuse to indulge their love of fishing. Excitement ramps up as the boat plows through 3- to 5-foot Atlantic swells and powers a few miles east, to the edge of the Gulf Stream. “Okay, time to get serious now,” Share says, as he and Nickey bait the lines.

Nickey reels in a fish; beautiful skies for a day on the water; his first catch of the day, a kingfish he’ll use for a smoked fish dip.
Nickey reels in a fish; beautiful skies for a day on the water; his first catch of the day, a kingfish he’ll use for a smoked fish dip.

For the first hour, the fish aren’t biting. Share points the boat toward shallower water, and everything changes. At about 70 feet, Nickey hooks a 30- to 35-pound kingfish almost as soon as his live bait hits the water. “We must have been right on top of him!” Share shouts, as they synchronize their movements around the boat, Nickey reeling and Share moving things out of the way to clear a path. The fish swims toward, then away from, then parallel to the boat before Share gaffs it and pulls it aboard. “I’ll make this into smoked fish dip,” decides Nickey without missing a beat.

Nickey stows the kingfish in the cooler, but he still wants a mahi-mahi or cobia for the main meal, so the hunt goes on. With heavy rain in the forecast and already visible off the coast, Share and Nickey decide to troll off the back of the boat on the way back to the inlet and hope for the best. Luck is on their side today: They pull in a 22-inch mahi-mahi.

Nickey holds up his prized catch of the day: a 22-inch mahi-mahi, which he’ll use to prepare a meal for his family.
Nickey holds up his
prized catch of the day: a 22-inch mahi-mahi, which he’ll use to prepare a meal for his family.

Back at the dock, the two ice the kingfish and, with the mahi-mahi in the cooler, Nickey heads home to prepare dinner for his family. After a quick shower, he’s ready to get to work. His wife, Lenia, and sons Christian, 10, and Michael, 8, act as assistants and sous-chefs—Christian, in particular, likes to help, remaining by his father’s side throughout the process clad in a matching apron.

Guiding his son’s hands while giving him careful instructions, Nickey lets Christian chop an heirloom tomato. Nickey is making a fattoush salad, using fresh vegetables and herbs he pulls out of a bin from the bonus fridge in the laundry room. “How much olive oil, Dad?” Christian asks, his hands hovering over the bottle of oil and measuring cup. Squeezing fresh lemons for the dressing attracts both boys to the action. Nickey’s manual citrus squeezer is at the restaurant, and the new one he recently ordered hasn’t been delivered yet, so he uses hinged metal tongs as a makeshift squeezer. Both boys get a set of tongs, place the lemon halves between them, and go about extracting juice into a bowl.

Nickey’s sons Christian and Michael help out in the kitchen.
Nickey’s sons Christian and Michael help out in the kitchen.

Meanwhile, Lenia is busy keeping the family’s new Labrador puppy, Stella, out of the way, pulling plates from various cupboards and cleaning up the occasional pan. An accomplished cook in her own right, especially proficient at Greek recipes handed down through her father’s side of the family, she prefers to let her chef hubby take charge when he’s home.

Married for 13 years, the two went to the same high school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania but didn’t start dating until, by coincidence, they both moved to South Florida in 2000. They were introduced by friends and began comparing notes on their shared past. “My mother was his fifth-grade teacher,” says Lenia. “We didn’t figure that out until we got together.” They lived in Miami at first but eventually moved to Martin County so their sons could grow up with plenty of land and a slower pace of life.

Salad ingredients sliced, diced, and ready to go.

Nickey began working in the restaurant business as a teenager in Pennsylvania. “I was in high school, and I needed a job,” he says. “I started as a dishwasher at Isaac Newton’s, and six months later I moved to prep cook, then line cook. I met a lot of great people I still keep in touch with today. We had a lot of fun.” A graduate of the prestigious culinary school Johnson & Wales, Nickey says he learned even more about the trade on the job. Over the years, he perfected his skills at various eateries in South Florida—including Abe & Louie’s, Morton’s The Steakhouse, and Kapow! Noodle Bar—before being recruited for the top job at Lucky Shuck.

As Nickey methodically and neatly prepares the night’s meal, he explains his techniques. The salad vegetables and herbs are chopped and ready to mix with the dressing, so he moves on to the mahi-mahi, efficiently cleaning it at the kitchen sink and slicing off fillets. “Tonight, I’m doing a crust of garlic, panko, and Thai basil,” he says. “I’m a big fan of crusting fish because it keeps it moist and preserves the flavor.” To make the panko mixture stick to the fish, he mixes mayonnaise with sambal (a spicy Indonesian chili sauce) and spreads it on the fillets before sprinkling on the panko.

Nickey slices radishes for the salad.

Fish is often on the menu at the Nickey residence when Chef is in the kitchen. Both boys are “adventurous eaters,” says Lenia. “They’ll definitely try everything.” But comfort food is also a big hit with the family. “I make braised short ribs, a pot of chili once in a while, meatloaf, things like that,” says Nickey.

Family pup Stella smells something fishy.
Family pup Stella smells something fishy.

Not unlike many families with active lives, meal planning often happens “on the fly,” says Nickey. “I’ll call Lenia and say, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ Then I’ll swing by Publix on my way home.” When things are really hectic, Nickey gets innovative, always managing to pull a rabbit out of the hat. “A lot of nights, it’s like, we know we have chicken thighs, but what will we do with them?” he says. “So I just start going through the refrigerator.” Adds Lenia: “He’ll make things that are delicious, and I won’t understand how because we had nothing in the fridge. He always adds so much flavor and is so creative. I would never think to pair certain things together or add certain sauces, but it always works.”

The final test of Nickey’s skill comes when everyone gathers at the large, white wooden kitchen table to sample the goods. The boys have a hard time sitting still and finish quickly, but they are more than happy with the meal. “It’s good, Dad,” says Michael, before bolting off to play with Stella. Lenia agrees: “I love eating like this because it’s light. It’s simple, but so fresh and flavorful.”

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