John Bil, 41, a native of Prince Edward Island, Canada, is an oysterman in every sense of the word. He’s gone from shucker in the kitchen to grower at the farm, from big city to tiny town, with a flat, dull knife in his holster and a constant craving for the jiggly saline delicacy he liberates by the crate on a daily basis. An avid competitor, Bil holds three national speed-shucking championship titles and has earned every right to drive around in his van with a license plate that reads … you guessed it: “OYSTER.” (To see him in action, watch this video.)
I first met Bil during a media dinner for the opening of New York City’s Flex Mussels, where a line of food writers sat at a gleaming stainless steel raw bar with dish towels and oyster knives. With much effort, I finally felt the joint between the shells creak and pop. Aglow with the pride of a child who had just tied her shoes for the first time, I asked Bil if he’d come to the office of Saveur magazine, where I was an editorial assistant, to teach the editors how to shuck. He arrived later that week — a fragrant, damp crate of fresh Washington Olympias in tow — and answered every question I’d ever had of an oysterman.
Can you describe fishing for and farming oysters on Prince Edward Island, compared to the West Coast or elsewhere?
There’s less wild fishing, so you’re mainly harvesting from a farm, and the harvesting method is specific to the farm. On the West Coast, you’re able to harvest from a beach. Primarily, the difference is tongs are used throughout the East Coast, and on the West Coast you’re either diving for them or picking them up off the beach or growing them in cages underwater.
So what method yields the most “oysters per hour”?
Oh, on the beach. Or in the cage, for sure. Or diving. But not tonging.
If you were an oyster, where would you be from?
Colville Bay, PEI. The oysters are amazing — perfect, green beautiful oysters, the insides are creamy and white. That’s a good, healthy sign. It shows that there’s lots of algae in the water, the water is shallow enough that it’s getting good food. There are a lot of periwinkles in the water and periwinkles tend to clean things off, so it’s kind of a symbiotic thing, and you get a nice clean shell. It’s the perfect place to grow an oyster.
How would you describe Colville Bay oysters?
Sweet, and creamy with a perfect little saltiness at the end. Very moderate salt, enough to know you’re eating something from the ocean, but very sweet and firm. You can only find them in Canada, and they sell out. This oyster is so good; it’s basically automatically sold out. If I ever wanted them for a special event I know I could get them, but they don’t bother shipping them to the States.
What would you tell an oyster naysayer to get them to try that first one?
Definitely stay away from warm-water oysters. It’s not that it’s dangerous inherently, it’s that there are potentially more problems in the water down south because of the temperature, lack of ice coverage, and there’s less care and concern over the health and sanitation aspects of oyster fishing and delivering than in other regions where there is more emphasis placed on consumer safety. I’ve seen some sort of hillbilly practices down there, and I’m not comfortable recommending them. Whenever you hear of people getting sick, by and large it’s down south. There’s a parasite in the water which doesn’t grow up north. It’s just a fact of life. Northeast or Northwest oysters, your chances of having any problems are way less than having a hamburger or one of those chicken-on-a-stick things from the cart by the subway.
Have you ever gotten sick from an oyster?
Never in 20 years. And I’ve tried oysters in varying states of decomposition, experimentally.
What would you recommend as a first oyster?
A Village Bay from New Brunswick is a good oyster to start with. It’s saltier, but the size and the texture are right. I think Kumamotos are the obvious choice for a lot of West Coasters because of the size. I’d go smaller. I’ve seen more people start successfully with a smaller oyster and say, “Oh, that’s not bad.” There’s already that psychological barrier where it’s like, “Ahh man, it’s an oyster, it’s slimy, what do I do with it?” So I usually try to give people something a little more manageable with a milder flavor.
Can you remember your first experience with an oyster? Who was involved, and was it an awakening experience?
It was actually with some guys I was mountain biking with. They owned an oyster bar and brought a case with them for after the ride. I was 19. I’d never had one. They were all eating them, so I thought, yeah, I’ll try one. It wasn’t as magical as some people describe it, but it was great. I was being introduced by friends who were already in the business. Food wasn’t really part of my life at that point. I mean, I ate food, but I didn’t really think about it. Oysters helped me with that. Once I got into oysters, I got into food.
What got you into oysters?
I needed a job. Basically, these guys who had the bar asked me if I wanted to give them a hand shucking oysters, so I went, shucked some oysters for them, got better at it, eventually I started working at the bar, then after four or five years I decided to actually get a job at an oyster farm. The oysters led me into other kitchens, which was nice because I eventually got a job with a catering company as the oyster shucker for fine-dining events, so I’d go in the kitchen and talk to the chef, and the oysters gave me entry into this whole other world of food that I would have never seen or been exposed to if I hadn’t been really good at this one little obscure thing. It made me see food differently. I could see these people preparing this incredible food, and I was just there because I was shucking oysters.
Tell me about your first oyster-shucking experience.
The first time I shucked oysters, it was a disaster. I was in the kitchen, they gave me like, 80 oysters, and it took me about a minute each. The guy came up to be and said, “Let’s see how badly you mangled these.” Everybody there was so picky about their oysters that they would stand over you and watch you shuck every oyster and tell you how bad you were. That’s not a good way to motivate people, telling them they suck, but for me it worked. We had a little in-house competition after I’d been there about three months, and I thought, “Hey, this is all right, I’m pretty good at this,” and figured maybe I had a future in it. I was pretty much broke, I was 20 years old and I needed the work.
I noticed that you call your oysters, “little guys.” Is that a John Bil original or an oysterman thing?
Probably me. They are little guys. Obviously I don’t get all weird about it and name them and stuff. They’re still alive right up until the moment you open them and eat them. I do think of them as, well, not pets but at a certain point if you’ve grown them and you work with them you do feel a little more connected to them than just, “You’re my steak.” When I open an oyster, I try to think back to who might have fished it.
What’s the worst oyster-related injury you’ve ever experienced?
It’s pretty gruesome. My first injury was actually my worst one. It was a very busy lunchtime, and I was still pretty new, and there were a lot of plates going out. At an oyster bar, you’re the center of attention, but I was still very young and pretty nervous and I put the knife literally all the way through my finger. I said to the owner of the restaurant, “Listen, I have to go in the back for a minute,” and I ran my finger under some cold water. It was still in the middle of service, so after about 10 minutes I went out and kept shucking. I’m a quick healer, but that’s why I developed the technique I use today, so I can push as hard as I want, but in the end the knife just goes into the oyster. It looks scary sometimes, people see the knife go in really quick and they think it went in my hand. It’s like a magic trick. It allows you to go really fast. I’ve had events where I’ve had to shuck 500 or 600 oysters in an hour, and people just watch you and wonder how you’re not cutting yourself. But if you develop the right technique and you understand that it’s about where you apply the pressure instead of how much pressure you use, you don’t cut yourself very much. But it’s going to happen, it’s inevitable. If anyone who shucks oysters told me they’d never cut themselves, I’d say, “Well then you haven’t been shucking oysters.”
Who eats the oysters you shuck during competitions?
Some competitions nobody eats them because the judges inspect them very closely. Oftentimes, though, they pass them around to the crowd afterward. I’m always wary of passing competition oysters out because many of the competitors are going so quickly that they’re messy and covered in shell, so I don’t think it’s the best kind of oyster to serve to people. They might be too shredded or full of sand. It’s an old-school tradition that you pass the oysters out to the audience, but I think that should probably die even though it’s sad to see them thrown away.
Do you have a favorite cooked oyster dish?
Fair enough. Is there a cooked oyster dish that you tolerate?
I think that cooking oysters is totally fine, and I’ll roll them in a little cornmeal flour mixture with a little seasoning and pan-fry them in butter, and it gives a nice little crunch. People say it’s delicious and I like it too, but the oyster flavor to me changes and becomes too concentrated and not as nice. I don’t mind them cooked, and I’ve cooked them a lot of ways, but at the end of the day there’s been so much work by nature and the oyster farm to make that thing, so why mess with it? It’s already got a sauce, it’s called the ocean, all the work’s been done by the sun and the moon and the tides so beyond that, to me, all you’re doing is messing it up.
How would you feel if someone told you could only eat cooked oysters for the rest of your life?
It would make me sad (laughs). It would make me nostalgic. I would do it, but there would be no passion in it. When you see oysters Rockefeller or deep fried for a po’boy sandwich, who cares? Nobody knows where those oysters come from, once you’ve deep fried something or baked something, it’s the sauce, it’s the cheese, it’s the bacon, it’s the breading. And those are all really good things, but to me, you’ve taken something so amazing that took five years to grow and you messed it up. People can do whatever they want, but I’d be really sad if I couldn’t eat raw oysters. I’d probably lose my passion for it, and I wouldn’t do my job as well. I love eating oysters. If I couldn’t sample them, I couldn’t tell people about them. I really need to be able to eat them and understand them, and when I try a new oyster I need to be able to say, “Hey, that’s good,” or “Hey, that’s not very good.” What can I say? It makes me happy.
How do you feel about the oyster shooter?
You’ve taken two perfectly good things and damaged them both. That’s an excellent thing — a cold vodka, delicious; a cold oyster, delicious — but in the same glass … eh. Usually if people ask me for an oyster shooter I’ll shuck an oyster and make them a cold shot of vodka and say have one, then the other. Every time I’ve helped open a restaurant, the owner says, “What about oyster shooters?” and I always say no. And then when I leave, they bring in oyster shooters. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe people love oyster shooters. I’ve had a bunch of different ones and rarely have I had one I found outstanding or at least memorable and even the best one was still not as good as having the oyster separate. I mean, would you dip your steak in a glass of red wine? Would you cut a little piece of rib eye off and stick it in your glass of wine and call it a steak shooter?
What’s your ideal beverage to accompany raw oysters?
White wine. It depends on the oyster, but usually I like a sauvignon blanc. There’s a muscadet from the Loire Valley. It was probably the best wine I’ve had with oysters, Pepiere Granite de Clisson.
Would you ever go into competitive oyster eating?
I’m not fast at eating anything. I’d enter the contest for the free oysters, but I’d eat them slowly, like, “Ahh, these are delicious!” We ran one for a couple of years at the PEI Shellfish Festival, [counting] as many oysters as someone could eat in 10 minutes, and it became this total catastrophe where people were eating over a hundred oysters. I couldn’t keep up, and it was really messy and nasty. So it became how fast someone could eat 24 oysters. I knew the people who won both years, and they both happened to be amazing oyster lovers and they’ll eat them fast, slow, cooked, raw, so in that case, to me, they weren’t eating oysters disrespectfully. At a certain point, you do have to have fun with food. If everybody just sat and Hoovered oysters down like that it’d be a little bit of a bummer. But if it serves to take some of the mystery away from eating oysters, I think it’s a good thing.
Is there anybody close to you, in your family or close group of friends, who doesn’t eat oysters or thinks they’re gross?
As far as thinking they’re gross or weird, strangely enough I think everybody in my life who means anything to me eats oysters. Now, whether they’ve come to that love of oysters because they hang out with me, or whether I’ve just eliminated all non oyster-eating friends, I don’t know. I’ve met a lot of people who don’t eat oysters, but they’re not my friends.
Jess Kapadia is a food writer in New York.