The Oyster Whisperer | Feature | Chicago Reader

The Oyster Whisperer 

Drifting up the Pacific coast after a stint in the army, he fell in love with a bivalve and one thing led to another.

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Whenever Mark Mavrantonis comes across an oyster that refuses to open, he caresses the bottom of its shell and speaks to it softly. "They're not stupid," he says. "They know something's up. Imagine your eyes are shut, you don't know what's going on, you're moving around a lot, and this guy tries to shove a knife in the side of your head." But if he reminds the oyster of its position at the bottom of the food chain, he says, it will relax and accept its fate.

Mavrantonis is the executive chef at Fulton's on the River, the giant downtown steak-and-seafood house. It's part of the Levy Restaurants corporation, which owns a few fine-dining jewels like Spiaggia but makes most of its money through sports arena concessions. When Fulton's opened in October 2005 the company gave Mavrantonis carte blanche to use his personal contacts with hundreds of oyster farmers all over the Pacific northwest and the Atlantic coast to develop a top-notch shellfish program. It's an ideal situation, because for all his important duties--menu development, ordering, heading a kitchen staff of 60--Mavrantonis would rather be shucking. "My ultimate dream would be to just have a bar that serves oysters and martinis," he says, "and every day you shuck for people that are sitting in front of you."

When Mavrantonis was a teenager in San Francisco, he was arrested for making plastic explosives in chemistry class. A counselor in the juvenile justice system steered him toward the military, and in 1985, when he was 17, he signed up for the army. He worked as a combat engineer specializing in bridge demolition before moving into special forces. By the time he was discharged, in 1993, he'd served in Central America, Israel, Turkey, and Somalia, where he was stationed during the Battle of Mogadishu. "It was a lifestyle that I didn't really want to be around anymore," he says. "There was a lot of violence. I just wanted something a little bit more on the easygoing side."

After returning to California Mavrantonis spent a few months working on a poultry farm in Petaluma before he got sick of looking at chickens and ducks. "I had no idea what I wanted to do," he says, so he got in his car and drove away. At a gas station in Point Reyes he asked another customer if there were any cheap hotels in the area. The man invited him to stay over at his place, an oyster farm, and the next morning Mavrantonis had his first sample, an oyster grown in the waters of Tomales Bay called the Hog Island Sweetwater. "It was really pretty," he says. "It had little purple stripes. They're really sweet and plump and have a smoky finish to them." He absentmindedly put the shell in his pocket and spent the next four days helping out at the farm, pulling up oysters by the rack, cleaning them, and breaking up any that had clumped together.

Fascinated by the process of turning a microscopic "spat" into a creature that is--he struggles for the right word--"awesome," Mavrantonis got back on the road and traveled to oyster farms all over the Pacific northwest. "The oysters were really soothing," he says. "It was the polar opposite of what I was doing before." Along the way he reached into his pocket and rediscovered the shell from his first oyster; he drilled a hole and hung it from his rearview mirror. Today it sits under his kitchen window at home. "My cats won't even touch it," he says. "They know it's mine. They look at it and they're afraid."

A few months into his trip, Mavrantonis met up with some guys in Seattle who trekked across Canada every year competing in shucking contests. He headed east with them and hit the oyster farms in Nova Scotia and on Prince Edward Island, where he worked for food and beer. "I had a little money saved up so it wasn't like I was desperate or anything," he says. The experience not only refined his palate, it enabled him to pick out different varieties on sight. At this point, he says, he can identify a species with his eyes closed, just by feeling the shell.

After a year as an itinerant oyster groupie, Mavrantonis returned to California and used his GI Bill benefits to enroll at Caltech. While working toward a mechanical engineering degree he took jobs at restaurants in San Francisco and Napa Valley, often as a dishwasher or prep cook. "I deliberately worked at restaurants that served oysters, even if I didn't necessarily work with them," he says. At the time there weren't many east coast oysters being eaten out west (and vice versa), so whenever he had the chance, Mavrantonis would steer chefs toward some of the farms he'd visited in his travels.

In 1996, while working short stints at the notable Bay Area restaurants Chez Panisse and the Fog City Diner, Mavrantonis was hired as an hourly fish cutter at a McCormick & Schmick's. The company was in the midst of a nationwide expansion and Mavrantonis quickly moved up the corporate ladder, training chefs and helping to set up new restaurants. Over the next five years he was involved in 18 openings around the country, throwing a lot of business toward his oyster-farming friends along the way.

While working in Boston in 2000 he took a trip to Prince Edward Island, hoping to find a way to bypass U.S. distributors and get oysters shipped direct. The Eastern Canadian Oyster Shucking Championship was just about to get under way, and though it's typically open only to Canadians, a friend who was competing got him in. "It was nerve-racking," he says. "I've never seen competition like that. There was one guy who would flick shells at your head." To the dismay of many Canadians he placed second in his first-ever contest. He followed that up by opening 32 oysters in one minute--one shy of the record--at the North American championship in Toronto.

The next year Mavrantonis wound up replacing the chef at the McCormick & Schmick's on Chestnut Street in Chicago. In his downtime he started competing on the U.S. circuit, where the emphasis is on speed rather than the quality of the shuck. In 2002 he placed fourth in the national championships at the Saint Mary's County Oyster Festival in Maryland, a feat he's repeated twice since then. "If I could just screw the salary and be a ten-dollar oyster shucker for a year I could probably get a little closer," he says. Three years ago, at the Guinness Oyster Festival on Goose Island (an event affiliated with the annual world championship in Galway, Ireland), he and a team of three opened 16,745 in a single day, a new world record. Mavrantonis, who shucked over 5,000 by himself, says he couldn't move his left arm for three days.

After eight years with McCormick & Schmick's, Mavrantonis left the company and took over as executive chef at the Cheesecake Factory in the Hancock Center. To keep up his chops for competitions he moonlighted as a shucker on the line at the Blue Water Grill. He also started writing a series of Kitchen Confidential-style rants inspired by the frustrations of working for a large restaurant chain. "I had a lot of coffee and started typing," he says. "They're written in a tone that could make me come off as a complete dick, but I think some of the best stuff that people write is when they're having anger management issues."

The manuscript consists of a dozen chapters, several of them still unfinished, and naturally focuses quite a bit on oysters--there's an entire chapter on shucking, ordering, receiving, and storing them. (He frequently hands out a G-rated version to Fulton's customers.) Mavrantonis writes that shuckers fall into two categories: Type As love oysters and know that "the more people understand and appreciate oysters, the more they will have the privilege of shucking." Type Bs, on the other hand, are lazy, sloppy, and disrespectful. "It was sort of like, if you like eggs and you like a sunny-side up, you shouldn't get one that's all smashed and broken," he says. "It should resemble an egg in the pan. And these guys are serving oysters that are just beat to shit. I'm like, come on, you gotta really take your time. An oyster has to look like an oyster. It's like if you get a martini, you don't want a chip in the glass or a blueberry floating in it."

In the summer of 2005 Mavrantonis got a call from a headhunter for Levy, wondering if he'd be interested in signing on as the chef at Fulton's. "After doing something like 5,000 people for the day, I probably would've talked to someone from Portillo's," he says. "Doing those kinds of numbers will suck the life out of just about anyone." After accepting the job he almost immediately "called about ten oyster guys." When the restaurant opened he was receiving 30 oyster deliveries a week and serving 18 varieties. Now he serves around a dozen and, depending on the season, occasionally more.

There are five oyster species in North America but hundreds of varieties. In the broadest terms, those raised on the east coast--referred to generically as Blue Points--have a brinier, more metallic flavor than their cousins from the west, which are less saline and have more subtle fruit and vegetable undertones. But even within those two major groupings the flavors are limitless. To give just one example, Fulton's occasionally serves both Penn Cove Select and Kusshi, which are grown 50 miles apart on the west coast by Mavrantonis's friend Ian Jeffries and couldn't look or taste more different. The Penn Coves, which come from northern Puget Sound, are about three inches long and have a brisk, salty taste with a hint of cucumber or melon. The Kusshis are grown off Vancouver Island for a few years and then transported to Washington, where they're periodically tumbled in a machine that breaks off the brittle ends of the shell. This causes the cups to grow deeper, eventually producing fat, sweet, creamy little critters about two inches in diameter. Kusshis have one of the highest meat-to-shell ratios among oysters. "It's like you feed a baby every day and you put it down for a nap and you change its diapers," Mavrantonis says. "Somebody spent five years making that oyster perfect."

Fulton's took over a space, previously occupied by Bob Chinn's Crab House, that included two ten-by-fifteen-foot seafood tanks, which inspired Mavrantonis to take his passion to a new level. With the intention of creating the first midwestern oyster farm right there in the restaurant, he persuaded the government of Prince Edward Island to donate about 100,000 Malpeque oyster spat by arguing that it would help market the variety in the U.S. But the operation proved too expensive. Instead, he turned his attention to ever-more-inventive ways of ensuring quality. After a visit to the FedEx facility near O'Hare, during which he realized his oysters were shipped alongside human organs, he tried unsuccessfully to obtain a stash of live human organ stickers to distribute to his farmers. "What would be shipped faster than a human organ?" he says. A global positioning system enables him to scout the water temperature of oyster beds; anything warmer than 54 degrees Fahrenheit is off-limits. "I actually prefer to buy oysters from someplace where they have to cut holes in the ice." And don't get him started on warm-water oysters. Because they have a greater tendency to harbor dangerous bacteria, eating a gulf coast oyster is "one of the dumbest things you can do," he says. "I'd rather play Russian roulette."

Besides, he says, gulf coast oysters are pretty dumb themselves, having smaller central nervous systems than cold-water oysters. "Do you know anybody from Louisiana? Sometimes you have to talk a little slower," he says. "Maybe it's the water." He once hooked a few cold-water oysters to an EEG machine--along with a sea urchin, a snail, and a king crab--at the end of a long evening involving a fistfight, bailing a drunk chef out of jail, taking him to the ER, and then bribing an intern with free food. His experiments with shellfish and medical equipment aren't over yet; Fulton's is bringing in a defibrillator that Mavrantonis thinks would be perfect for searing live scallops: "Instead of the gel they rub on the panels, I could use some nice olive oil."

Oyster shucking is one of the most difficult and low-paying jobs anyone can do in a kitchen, but Mavrantonis says he still tries to shuck as often as possible, usually between lunch and dinner. He's off Sundays and Thursdays, but "I pretty much change my schedule around the oysters." Sometimes he comes out of the kitchen and pries them open tableside. Despite his speed records, Mavrantonis works slowly in the restaurant, spilling as little liquor as possible and neatly severing the animal's adductor muscle from its shell. "I'm not as interested in the contests as I used to be," he says. "Not because I'm not into competition, but because it's tough on the oysters. I like to think of it as having an oyster's point of view for a change."

Since he can't shuck every oyster in the place, he personally trains novice employees so they don't develop any bad habits. "It's like firing a rifle," he says. "Inhale, exhale, pause for a moment, and gently squeeze the trigger. The oyster has waited its entire life for this moment, and mauling it is a travesty." Much as he can pick out oyster varieties on sight, he can discern who might make a quality shucker: "I took a course in handwriting analysis once, and if I see someone's application I can tell if they'd be good." He looks for detail-oriented penmanship and how hard someone pushed on the pen; the lighter the touch, the better. Most importantly, a shucker has to appreciate the "inner beauty" of an oyster, a trait that, to his regret, is rare. "There's lot of people that shuck oysters,"he says, "but there's not a lot of oyster shuckers."

For a sampling of Mark Mavrantonis's writings on oysters, see chicagoreader.com/oystermanifesto.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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