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Oyster Events, Oyster PeopleOctober 8, 2017

The Spirit of the Oyster South

It’s an opportune time to be an oyster enthusiast in the South. Although many Gulf and Southeastern states have longstanding oyster ventures, the industry is being shaken up by new faces, places, and ideas. A new entity has emerged from this energy. Its name: The Oyster South. Its purpose: building a community around southern family oyster farms.

Oyster South is a non-profit organization that’s comprised of oyster farmers, academics, restaurateurs, and media folks who are committed to the growth of southern oyster culture and community. The cross-sector collective not only fills a geographic gap between the ECSGA and PCSGA, but also reflects the new collaborative spirit between producers, operators, and consumers. I flew down to Atlanta in January and hitched a ride with Oyster South co-founder/board member Ted Golden, aka @FoodieBuddha, to Auburn University to participate in the inaugural Oyster South Symposium.

The gathering consisted of a diverse swath of stakeholders, from professional oyster shuckers to Sea Grant representatives. The agenda was packed with interesting talks. Each state had an opportunity to share updates about the development, or lack thereof, in their aquaculture sector. Louisiana and Alabama are the trailblazers of the oyster farming movement, and North Carolina and Florida also are growing rapidly. Things (legislation, namely) seem to be more complicated in other states such as Texas and Mississippi, and marine resource representatives admit that there’s a lot of catching up to do.

Chefs also had a voice during the two-day symposium. Chef Ryan Prewitt (shown above) from Pêche in New Orleans shared his perspective about working closely with local growers to source the best oysters for his raw bar. His thoughts were echoed by Bryan Rackley, partner/co-founder of Oyster South and Kimball House’s Oyster Situation Director PersonJim Smith, Executive Chef of the State of Alabama and Top Chef contestant also offered up some great suggestions about how to work with your state government to promote oysters. It was a real treat to have such a stellar group of chefs and foodservice professionals at the gathering, and being able to spend more time with them at the Alabama Oyster Social in the evening.

For oyster farming to happen just about anywhere nowadays comes down to one key component: seed. That is why I found the presentations, “Oyster Hatcheries in the South” by Scott Rikard from Auburn University and “Bottle Nursery Components and Operation for Small Oyster Seed Production” by John Supan from Louisiana State University to be especially interesting. If you’re thinking about starting up an oyster business, it’ll be worth your while to watch.

After the first day of class—the venue made me feel like we were all going back to school—the group was let out to refresh themselves in the brisk 40-degree January air. It certainly felt nice, but I wasn’t expecting Alabama to be this chilly!

Jay Styron of Carolina Mariculture lugged out a large white and blue sack of his Cedar Island Selects to the courtyard. As soon as he and Bill Walton had an oyster and knife in hand, a cluster of hungry symposium attendees started circling around the two. The Cedar Island Select—not to be confused with Cedar Islands from Rhode Island—was a brand new specimen for me. It would be my second-ever North Carolinian oyster encounter (the first being Cape Hatteras), and I was very eager to try it.

Bill handed me a pillowy cream-colored oyster. It had a lovely deep cup and felt heavy in my hand. The Cedar Island Select’s icy, ocean-breezy brine tastes more saline than I had imagined it would be although not overbearing. The fully opaque, about-to-spill-over-the-shell meat had marvelously dense and springy texture. The freshness was palpable. I felt a strange sensation while enjoying this oyster. It didn’t actually feel like I was eating an oyster at all! Instead, I was snacking on a luscious sea scallop or lump crab meat. Sea-sweet, supple, and savory. The Cedar Island Select is what I imagine when I hear the phrase, “fruit of the sea,” and I couldn’t get enough.

Although our hands and toes were growing numb from the cold, my senses were wide awake.

I’m newly convinced that not only is it better to enjoy oysters when it’s cold but also eating them in the cold (and maybe while you’re cold). Oysters in the summertime is sooooo overrated. 

Side note: if you are ever handed a freshly shucked oyster by Bill Walton (aka Doctor Oyster), I suggest you accept it. There aren’t many times in your life when you’ll be offered a perfectly shucked oyster sprinkled with super fresh oyster knowledge.

On day two, I gave my presentation, “#OysterLove: 2017 Trends Forecast,” which focuses on a few trends that I see are impacting consumer and B2B marketing efforts. Since that talk, I’ve seen some growers take my advice to heart and really up their marketing and social media game. (Btw: if you’re interested in getting access to the presentation, shoot me an email.)

All and all, I learned a TON at the Oyster South Symposium. More importantly, I got to meet some remarkable growers, chefs, and thought leaders in the oyster space. It’s a really unique networking opportunity and would definitely go again.

Should I Join the Oyster South?

The short answer is Yes. You and anyone who is interested in supporting the growth of the southern oyster industry should join. If you are a current grower or aspiring one based in the South (or have a business that supports the oyster industry), membership is currently just $35/year. Sign up at on their website.

An upcoming Oyster South event that you definitely need to know about is Landlocked on Sunday, October 29th in Decatur, GA (just outside of Atlanta). This magnificent feast of oysters from all three coasts and whole hog BBQ will benefit the University of Georgia Shellfish Lab & Oyster South Partner Farms. Just take a gander below at the growers and chefs involved. I’m going to be there. You should be there. Let’s party!

Tickets are $100 (VIP tickets that get you in the door 1 hour before General Admission is $150).

Grab them here.

 

Oyster LoveAugust 19, 2017

My Oyster Bucket List

Goal-setting is a practice that I firmly believe. When you write your intentions down, they are definitely more likely to come true. I don’t have hard data to back this up, but it really does work! So with that in mind, here’s my oyster bucket list.

Ever since stumbling across Peter Jon Lindberg’s mesmerizing and envy-inducing world oyster journey for Travel + Leisure, I’ve been inspired to weave my own international oyster saga.

I had the unbelievable opportunity to travel the world for business during my mid-20’s and made sure to take full advantage of it. It’s not only a thrill to experience oysters from all around the world, but pure joy to meet people who are just as obsessed as you are.

Even now with well over two dozen oyster farm visits under my belt, the hunger hasn’t subsided. There’s still SO much left to discover, still many friends yet to meet. In 2010, I started a food-related “to do” list on my pre-oyster food blog. It’s still online if you care to take a peek. I think I will start to keep track of my top oyster to-do’s as well and see how it goes.

 

My Oyster Bucket List

  1. Visit Australia’s Oyster Coast of NSW and shuck my own oysters
  2. Visit an oyster farm in Tasmania
  3. Attend the Bluff Oyster Festival in New Zealand
  4. Harvest and enjoy Limfjord oysters in Denmark before the Chinese eat them all
  5. Hang out at the Knysna Oyster Festival in South Africa
  6. Visit French oyster country (this might take 1 month) — Normandy, Brittany, Marennes-Oléron
  7. Visit a Croatian oyster farm
  8. Visit oyster farms and friends of the United Kingdom
  9. Hang out with my favorite Canadian oyster friends in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver
  10. Visit the oyster farmers of North Carolina
  11. Visit oyster farms in China
  12. Return to Japan and sample oysters from across the country
  13. Finally make my way to the Western Bay of the Chesapeake (I’m stunned I haven’t done this yet)
  14. Four words: Hama Hama Oyster Rama
  15. Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick oyster land visit needs to happen as well
  16. Teach an oyster master class abroad
  17. Take an oyster master class abroad
  18. Dive for oysters with Glidden Point Oyster Farm

 

What else should be on here?

 

Oyster ToursAugust 18, 2017

Do You Know About the Oyster Trail of Maine?

I’m not sure how I stumbled across this treasure map years ago, but I freaked out (in a good way) when I did. The Oyster Trail of Maine is the brainchild of Catherine Schmitt and Dana Morse from Maine Sea Grant, and it’s growing into something much bigger.

The hope is to turn this directory of oyster goodness below into a full-fledged Oyster Trail of Maine website that visitors, locals, and food professionals can use to organize their own fabulous Maine oyster adventure.

Check out the landing page to learn more about Maine oysters. You can also navigate the points of interest using this key below!

Red pin: Oyster farm tours
My faves being: Nonesuch Oyster Farm, Damariscotta River Cruises

Yellow pin: Buy oysters
My faves being: Harbor Fish Market, Browne Trading Market, and Glidden Point Oyster Farm

Green pin: Eat oysters
My faves being: Eventide Oyster Co., BP Shuck Shack, Scales, Roberts Maine Grill

Blue pin: Know oysters
My faves being: Johns River, Bar Harbor Selects, Glidden Point, Pemaquid, Otter Cove, too many others to list!

 

READ POST: Blazing the Maine Oyster Trail Part 1

Oyster PeopleAugust 10, 2017

In A Nut Shell: Chef Austin Navarre

With tat-laden arms, a Brooklyn-worthy beard, and adorn in apparel promoting every decent raw bar in the country but his own, Austin Navarre doesn’t just have the look of a badass mothershuckin’ chef; he’s the real deal. I met Austin when he was in the midst of opening Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar in Olympia, Washington last fall. One bite of his crisp geoduck salad, chargrilled octopus, and elegantly garnished Chelsea Gem oyster and you’ll be nodding too.

Austin’s menu at Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar changes constantly. If I could go every week, I would. As an early participant in the James Beard Foundation Smart Catch program, Chef Navarre is as conscientious about creating surprising flavor combinations as he is about taking care of the environment. BTW: I’m still reminiscing about those steamed oysters and absinthe butter…

 

Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar
222 Capitol Way N
Olympia, WA 98501
Facebook / Instagram

Oyster Know-HowAugust 5, 2017

How to Style and Photograph Oysters Like a Pro

If you’re in the food business, you know exactly how important aesthetics are to our perception of quality and deliciousness. We eat with our eyes first, after all! When it comes to styling and photographing oysters, a lot can go wrong, even without you knowing it.

In my early blogging days, I would snap and share every platter of oyster that I consumed. Today, I’m quite a bit more selective about which photos to use and what not to share. Gashed bellies? Denied. Dried meats? Adios. It takes a lot now to make it to my Instagram feed, and it’s for good reason. When I see a popular website or magazine share a photo of crappy oysters, it’s basically perpetuating flawed taste. For true oyster nerds, we grimace (and maybe cry a little on the inside) when a butchered plate of oysters is published or shared by an influential chef or writer. Don’t let bad oyster photography happen to you!

Asking a Styling Pro: Adrienne Anderson

So how do you get it right? If you’re looking for oyster styling inspiration and benchmarking, there’s no better book to reference than The Essential Oyster by Rowan Jacobsen, photographed by David Malosh with food stylist Adrienne Anderson. I’m always in awe of good food styling and framing. Adrienne was kind enough to offer up her sage advice about her craft to us.

What do you think is the most challenging aspect of styling oysters and how do you manage it?

The biggest challenge with any kind of styling project is answering the question Why I am doing this? Why do I need to add this image to the world? Am I an oyster farmer who wants to sell a lot of product? Am I a scientist who wants to highlight some particular feature that’s unusual to the organism? Am I on social media trying to get some likes? Is my motivation financial, intellectual, artistic? Once you know where you’re going, you’ll have a much easier time getting there.

As for the technical side of styling oysters, the hardest part is that you are dealing with a living organism that has zero interest in your styling agenda. Oysters, like all of us, would rather not be vivisected with sharp knives and put on display. So they’re not exactly going to pose for the camera. If you want to shoot six great-looking oysters, you should plan to start with at least two dozen. The bigger sample you can start with, the better your outcome will be.

What are some tips or tricks that might help someone who’s trying to get the perfect oyster shot?

Again, first you need to know what the “perfect shot” means to you. The Scandinavian style of food photography that took off ten years ago is still going strong – we see this all over Instagram and it’s still the dominant style of books and magazines. Cool natural light, wabi-sabi props and surfaces, lots of graphic overhead studio shots interspersed with images of wild locations. (Ditte Isager’s photography for the original Noma cookbook is still the gold standard for this style.) If you want this look, try setting up your shot in a darkish room next to a bright window. Use only natural light, and keep the props minimal and zen.

In general, I always say that the number one rule of food styling is wet is beautiful. Wetness makes highlights, highlights make contrast, and contrast makes a dynamic image. Try adding a little extra brine if the oyster is dry, try tilting the shell in different ways to see how the light plays off it, try using matte props so the oyster is the only thing shining.

That said, don’t go coating your oysters with shellac or something just to make them shine. Show some respect to the oyster. Eat it when you’re done. If you’ve done something heinous to the creature just to get an image, it was not worth it. In The Old Days, stylists used to use shoe polish and Maggi seasoning to make barely cooked turkeys look roasted and bronzed. Or Poligrip to glue sandwiches together. Or they would stuff apple pies with mashed potatoes and paper towels to make them look full and “abundant.” All that food ended up in the garbage when the shoot was over. Which seems to me like the height of human stupidity.

What was your favorite oyster staging for The Essential Oyster and why?

Hmm…all of them? Can I say that? It really was a dream project to work on. When we pitched the idea for the images to Bloomsbury, Rowan’s publisher, we had a high-concept idea where we would tie each image to the terroir of its oyster. I’m looking back at my original email from 2015 now and I actually proposed that we would “capture the minerality of a Moonstone by shooting it on a flinty hand-poured concrete slab with Point Judith sand as the substrate.” Needless to say, when the budget and timeline came in, we had to axe the idea of mixing our own concrete. But David Malosh and I did make many of the props ourselves, and the idea of terroir still surfaced in many of the images. The shot of Olympias on weathered copper, for example. I love the metallic flavor of those oysters so we used salt water to develop a patina on those copper sheets.

If I had to pick an absolute favorite, I’d say it has to be the spread of Hama Hama oysters. The wood and moss came from the forest that looms over the tidal flats on the James family land where they grow their oysters. It’s one of the most beautiful places to get lost; it looks like the Forest Moon of Endor. You half-expect an ewok to come down a trail with an oyster knife. To me, images are beautiful when they fix a transitory moment in the eternal, and that shot will always be my secret doorway to that place.

Every oyster in the book is shucked flawlessly. Was it a conscious decision to open each one carefully and precisely? How do you feel when you see a magazine spread today that features massacred oysters? What would you say to the people responsible?

Oh, it was definitely my intention to open each one carefully and precisely…but anyone’s who’s shucked a few oysters knows that the road to (s)hell is paved with good intentions. Some of the shells crumbled in my hands, some of the meats turned out thin and listless, some beautiful rare oysters nearly met their end when they got trapped on FedEx truck and I had to drive to Queens to rescue them from certain death in a 110-degree warehouse. Just a few of the many reasons why you always want to procure a few extras if you can.

On the question of magazines – that’s touchy! I count many of them as clients, and there are some photo editors who really know their stuff and do a great job. But to the merchants of schlock who peddle images of mangled oysters (I’m looking at you, internet), I say slow down. Find the experts. There are so many talented people working in the oyster industry who are willing—even eager—to share their knowledge if you just ask them. And there are some incredibly talented shuckers working the restaurant circuit whose skills deserve to featured in their own right (the crew at Kimball House in Decatur, GA, at Oyster Club in Mystic, CT, and at Pêche in New Orleans all jump to mind, and don’t even get me started on the perfection of Joe Beef). But you have to go out and meet these people; you have to experience what they do firsthand. You’ll never get it by googling.

Finally, for my own technical curiosity, when do you shuck the oysters for your shoot? Do you set up the staging and then shuck? Or shuck, place and then style around it? Can you pre-shuck to some extent?

For The Essential Oyster, one of the big challenges was making each image look different from the next. It was like doing 100 shots of steaks: sure, a rib-eye is totally different from a porterhouse…but is it really? You have to find a way to blow up the nuances. With oysters, you have to find a way to see the same salty blob as fresh and new. On a book of this scope, I also needed to make sure the pacing had a rhythm to it: changing up the scale of each shot, alternating light and dark palettes, varying the angle of the composition. David and I were shooting the images out of order over several months, so as we finished each shot he would print a Polaroid and pin it to the wall according to its page number. Then we’d fill in the blanks as we finished each image. These bigger storyboard arcs totally occupied my mind, so whenever it was possible to shuck the oysters in advance for a particular shot and keep them in the fridge, I did. Maybe an hour or two. Anything to buy a little time to figure out the creative flow.

And speaking of creative flow, I have to say that David is actually a much better shucker that I am. He can operate a camera with one hand and shuck an oyster with the other. It’s like watching an octopus solve a Rubik’s cube. I highly recommend working with him if you ever get the chance.

Buy the book on Amazon.

Other Resources

STYLING GUIDE: A month ago, I had the opportunity to work with a fabulous champagne brand and their creative agency on a media event and booklet. Although I wasn’t able to attend their shoot, I put together a little cheat sheet of “what to do / what not to do” when it comes to oyster presentation. Download the Oyster Shucking (PDF)

HOW TO SHUCK: Watch my own video

SOURCING PROPS: Check out the Oyster Concierge and Gift Wish List for ideas