A shucker’s hope for a better oyster culture

Source: Scotty Bordignon

It takes a dose of bravery to try your first oyster. The slimy grey bivalve, sucked straight from its shell, downed in a gulp. What possessed the first coastal human to crack open what looks like a rock and eat its gooey interior? All I know is that I love that human, almost as much as I love oysters.

The saline hit of an oyster, the otherworldliness of its texture. There’s very little in the world of food like them. Eaten alive, they feel enlivening. They wake you up, and encourage another drink.

So many of the world’s great oysters come from B.C., four of the world’s five edible species are grown in the Pacific Northwest. Fanny Bay on Vancouver Island has given its name to a breed of meaty oyster joyously gulped down from New York to Shanghai. Yet Vancouver’s oyster culture feels somehow lacking. There are a few dedicated oyster bars, but the commonplace dozen as an appetizer or cocktail snack isn’t easily found. London, San Francisco, and even Toronto have oyster cultures, neighbourhood restaurants offering fresh-shucked seafood. In Vancouver, that sort of casual indulgence is hard to find.

Scotty Bordignon is trying to change that. A shucker at Fanny Bay Oyster Bar on Cambie St., Scotty is dedicating his career to Vancouver’s oyster scene. Moonlighting as a shucker-for-hire, he works to make oysters in Vancouver the sort of “commonplace, affordable luxury” that he’s found around so much of North America.

“It’s like the craft beer scene,” Bordignon says of his dream, “imagine a night where you can go from bar to bar, tasting different oysters, and meeting different shuckers. With the big personalities working behind the raw bar, you’re bound to have a good time.” Bordignon certainly is a big personality. Built like a linebacker, he takes on a lightness, almost bouncing out of his chair, when he starts talking oysters.

Scotty knows how many barriers there are to his dream scene in Vancouver. First and foremost, “they’re oysters.” They’re a niche food, not necessarily for the squeamish diner. Beyond that, however, Scotty says the space for niche oriented start up restaurants in Vancouver is small, because of ‘big box restaurants’ like Joey and Cactus Club. These corporate restaurants, the mainstay of Vancouver’s neighbourhood dining options, aren’t as likely to take the risk of opening a raw bar.

Most clients, Scotty says, don’t know what goes into growing an oyster. He blames much of that on the happy-hour buck a shuck oysters, often served without provenance. At Fanny Bay, their oysters go for $1.50 during happy hour, but are always described by their breed and place of origin. The clients who could pay more often aim for flashier dining, skipping better than buck a shuck oyster spots altogether. Nevertheless, Scotty sees things changing.

A growing group of oyster seekers, according to Scotty, are part of a wider feeling of excitement he’s noticing in Vancouver’s dining scene. Younger clients are looking for places that deliver an experience, trusting that a restaurant or a bar can deliver drinks and dishes they wouldn’t expect. A big part of those clients choices, to Scotty, is to experience B.C. cuisine.

“Ask three people what B.C. cuisine is, and you’ll get four answers.” For Scotty, that cuisine is built around Beef from interior ranches, wine and produce from the Okanagan, and fresh seafood from Vancouver Island and the Georgia Straight.

In B.C. the conditions for seafood are perfect. The confluence of water temperature, water quality, geology and microbial life, what the French call “merroir” — a wet version of terroir — is ideal for the growth of quality shellfish.

The idea of celebrating B.C. products is taking greater hold, with more steakhouse-raw bar and seafood centric restaurants opening around town, notably the recent arrival of seafood obsessed Hook. Shucker culture is growing too. Scotty sees more big personalities, and more and more women especially, joining the ranks of the big personalities behind the counter.

“The trend is going in the right direction,” says Scotty, “the next step is to turn that trend into a culture.”