The smell of saltwater in the air as you breathe slow and deep with the rhythm of the water. The lightest of breezes brushes your cheek while sea birds sing and dance overhead. Waiting patiently for the tides to change allows just enough time to harvest by moonlight one of the most amazing bi-valves to exist, an animal which drastically improves the environment it’s farmed in, creating vibrant eco-systems wherever it goes.
Oysters. You either love ’em or hate ’em, and Patrick Cantin-Gayton will tell you it has a lot to do with the person who shucked them. He says, “I will only eat an oyster if i know the shucker.”
This may sound pretentious but hear me out. When you have worked with oysters, developed relationships with the farmers and gotten deep into the production of raising oysters, you will understand Pat’s frustration. “Oysters are special and very few people know how to do it properly.” These unique creatures are filter feeders, also known as bottom feeders, and they give nature a natural way to flourish. Oysters filter plankton which bring in the fish, followed by the birds and seals and so on. Bays without oysters can be very cold and desolate places lacking life and lustre, but once we introduce oysters we are developing biodiversity. Make this point with a vegan and I can guarantee you will have an interesting discussion with a compelling argument pro-oyster consumption.
Similar to wine having a “terroir” in which the wine will develop characteristics of the area in which the grapes were grown, oysters have a “merroir”. With only five main species for farming but countless areas in which to grow, oysters have a wide range of flavour profiles. Some are better for the virgin oyster-eaters, while others are more suited to those with an adventurous palate. Taking an exploratory trek through flavour facets of oysters you can come across Umami mushroom, crisp and clean melon, mineral-copper, and even battery acid! That’s right, some oyster enthusiasts will specifically ask for oysters with notes of battery acid and that is all they want to eat. With such a wide spectrum there is indeed an oyster out there for everyone so for all you oyster skeptics, I recommend that you take the plunge.
Patrick strongly believes that if a restaurant intends to have oysters on the menu or have an oyster bar there is a need for an oyster expert, so to speak. Without this, the image of the industry and product is tarnished. The industry should be “run by the shuckers” because they know how to properly showcase the product. “If people have a bad steak at a restaurant they are not going to have a steak next week. If people have a bad oyster, they will stay well away from them for the rest of their lives.” This makes oyster bars an excellent platform for educating guests.
Pat was not born with this love of oysters; it grew like any other self-discovered passion. Originally from Le Salle in the Notre-Dame-de-Grace of Montreal, he moved to British Columbia with his family at the age of five and, through his grandmother, fell in love with cooking. His grandmother would cook for him almost everyday: banana bread for breakfast, homemade packed lunches for school and dinner every night at 6:30pm. “We were spoiled brats”, Pat recalls with a wry smile. As the years went on Pat’s grandmother was missing the rest of the family back in Quebec. After making the difficult decision to send her back East, Pat’s family were now on their own when it came to cooking. His mother took over for the most part but Pat quickly became the family chef, packing the freezer with homemade pasta sauces so the family could enjoy pre-made dinner on nights Pat was off enjoying his teenage years – using grandma’s recipes of course! “Pet de Soeurs” literally means a “nun’s fart” and was the favourite snack, a sugar doused puff pastry similar to a small cinnamon roll, Quebec-style. To no-one’s surprise, Pat attended culinary back in Quebec for the hefty fee of $500 for the program,which ran for about a year and a half. What is unique to the the school he attended is that everything made in the school was sold to the public, making tuition affordable. The school has several restaurants in which each student partakes in a well rounded education, and because everything is made by the students the relative cost for lunch is extremely reasonable, making it a popular spot for trade workers.
Oysters came about in a bit of weird way. Pat describes the presence of oysters in each restaurant he worked in, each with its own unique take on the dish. The responsibility of oysters fell into his lap after a particularly heated argument with his former chef at one of these restaurants. Pat had been working in the back of the kitchen watching the most inexperienced cooks handling one the most expensive products, and it just didn’t make sense to him. “It’s like getting a culinary student with no experience running the grill on their first day.” A week went by and Pat had a meeting with the chefs and owner about creating an oyster bar in the restaurant. He was battered with questions: How much would this cost? What would the labour be? What should we charge? Should we do a happy hour? How many oysters can you shuck in an hour? At that point he had shucked a few oysters but really didn’t understand what an oyster bar was. “I bullshitted my way through,” he laughs. His restaurant had confidence in him, helping him out tremendously, and as a result it was a huge success for the company. The venture created a huge influx in revenue stream, and from there he was able to get more involved visiting the farms, where Pat says his journey as a chef ended. “I was more in love with the product, than I was with the chef life.”
Through this change in career path, Pat was able to meet people from the industry like Daniel Notkins, who is one of the best oyster shuckers in the world. Notkins further inspired Pat to provide the best possible product, adding another notch to his virgin “oyster belt” on the daily. This belt refers to how many people he has turned into oyster lovers, and is not as gross as the name might suggest. Pat has turned even the toughest of critics to share his love oysters, with his favorite clients being two four-year-olds that visit his oyster bar, often having a whopping dozen oysters each. Pat ended our conversation with this fun little fact: the aphrodisiac aspect of oysters only applies to men, it does nothing for women.
Me: “What’s the dream?”
Pat: “ To own my own place, showcasing the best of oysters. Especially in the winter. That is when they are best, when they’re nice and plump and they have lots of food to feed on. In the summer they are trying to spawn, so all their energy goes to that and you can see that in the meat. I want people to realize how beautiful this product is and that it should be looked after.”
You can get involved and visit Pat at Fanny Bay Oysters in Vancouver to learn more or follow them on Instagram @fannybayoysters
If you are looking for a good book to further your own education Pat recommends A Geography of Oysters: The Connoisseur’s Guide to Oyster Eating in North America – By Rowan Jacobsen.
…And be kind to your shuckers
If you are in search of your very own oyster knife here is what our master oyster shucker recommends
The Brownie Oyster Kinfe with Hardwood Handle, 3”- 575687, this will run you about $10 CAN.
Pat recommends ripping off the gard and customizing the blade to your own personal preferences
Go to http://russellhendrix.com to find a store near you
You can also visit http://fanybayoysters.com and
Http://taylorshellfishharms.com for all your wholesale and merchandise needs