Each Friday in October we’ll be featuring different oyster bars operated by Louisiana Cookin’ Chefs to Watch. This week, our Oyster Happy Hour features James Beard Award winning Chef Ryan Prewitt (CTW-’14) of Pêche Seafood Grill in New Orleans.
When we opened Pêche, we wanted oysters to be a big part of the experience. At the beginning, we carried Louisiana oysters from St. Bernard Parish and Grand Isle, as well as some Island Creek Oysters from Ducksberry, Massachusetts. We went with the Massachusetts oysters because of their consistency and quality. There was nothing on their level in the Gulf at the time.
Shortly after we opened, I got an email from Cullen Duke. Cullen was an early oyster farmer in Alabama, with an off-bottom operation near Dauphin Island in the Mobile Bay. Chefs get emails all the time from producers about their product, and normally it does not work out. I take these conversations with a big grain of salt.
But Cullen and I kept in touch. As it got closer to his first harvest, about a year after Pêche opened, I finally agreed to take some of his oysters. We work with a seafood company out of Mobile, so we arranged to have some of Cullen’s oysters put on our truck. We ate a few of them, and were like “Holy S—-, these are fantastic.”
I called Cullen. He gave us a price and we bought almost his entire first harvest. It was tens of thousands of his Isle Dauphine oysters.
That’s when we amicably broke up with Island Creek. They had a great product, but it was outside the scope of what Pêche was supposed to be. We wanted to double down and focus entirely on Gulf seafood, and Alabama farm-raised oysters allowed us to find a consistently delicious product from only two hours away.
What’s happened in Alabama since is amazing. Dr. Bill Walton with Auburn University has been instrumental in creating this aquaculture industry from near scratch. What started with Steve Crockett and his Point aux Pins is now 15 producers with more coming on-line each year. Dr. Walton was able to create a name for Alabama oysters, something that had never existed before.
It’s crazy, because all of the Alabama oysters are growing in the same water. The question “why do these oysters have flavor and appearance differences when they are the same species in the same water” is a great one. The answer has a lot to do with oyster manipulation. If the farmer is out there every day shaking up the oysters, breaking them apart, moving them around, the oyster will chew and eat differently than at another farm where the farmer is not doing quite as much.
Shape and appearance all factor into how an oyster tastes, and you can influence their shape and appearance as the oysters are raised.
Louisiana is starting to catch up to Alabama, with farm-raised oysters from Caminada Bay, off Grand Isle, beginning to deliver the same quality and consistency as their Alabama relatives.
On our oyster bar today we have two varieties from Grand Isle, two from Alabama, and the bottom-raised oysters we’ve carried from the beginning. That gives our customers a great variety from the Gulf. I always encourage people to taste them all. There’s no better way to experience the regional differences of Gulf oysters.