One of the main reasons I was drawn to Island Creek (aside from the oysters, of course), was the way in which the farm established relationships with chefs. Almost every Boston chef I can name knows of (and favors) Island Creek oysters. But more importantly, they all know Skip and “the guys from Island Creek.” Skip and Shore have clearly worked hard to make theirs a well-known brand. But they’ve also opened the door and welcomed any chef that wants to come down to the water and check things out. While this isn’t a new concept (chefs have probably visited farms and had relationships with their purveyors since restaurants were created), I knew early on that there was a takeaway with ICO that most chefs couldn’t get anywhere else. Being on the water and going out to the lease can make people a little awe struck. There’s a mystery behind growing oysters. Sure, it’s scientific and methodical but oysters themselves aren’t easy creatures to know. On top of which, the farm has an aura to it. The people there happen to love their lives and the place where they live. And sure it involves hard work, but it all takes place in the middle of a breathtaking bay.
To be fair, there’s no easy way to describe to visitors what to expect. You’ll come down to the water, go out to the float and probably get a tour of the nursery and the lease. You’ll be on a boat. In a harbor. It will most likely be beautiful out. The crew will be busy and will likely keep working while you explore. You’ll see what it means to cull and to drag. But we won’t tell you much more than that. We’ll wait for the questions to come. And while we try to tell people what to expect, every time we get them down, we get the same reaction: Wide eyes with a face that’s half smile, half awe. One that says, “How fucking cool is this?”
Will Gilson, chef at Garden at the Cellar came to the farm with a few of his cooks on Tuesday. Talk about cool: he’s cooking a dinner at the James Beard House in New York on Tuesday, Aug. 4th and he’s personally sourcing every ingredient on the menu from New England. He’s raising and slaughtering pigs, catching his own mackerel, harvesting his own produce, and, of course, hand picking the oysters.
He and his guys gallantly suited up in waders and came out on the tide with us. We were there to get some work done, cleaning cages and organizing bags, while they were there to pick. We handed them some buckets, gave them a few guidelines and let them go. Forty five minutes went by before I checked on them. Walking towards them in the water, I could tell they were enjoying it. Their buckets were full of perfect oysters and they were relishing the sunshine and the water. Will was happy with his haul and Brandon was antsy to open some of the jumbos so he could fry them up and stuff them into po boys at the restaurant that night.
It might not sound like much. But I guarantee they’ll always remember Island Creeks because of that visit. And they’ll remember what it felt like to stand in the water and pick the food they would eat later that night. It will stay with all of them no matter where they end up next or who they cook for. And that’s a pretty powerful tool.
Of course, we also grow pigs for our chefs. Gourmet and Midnight are getting nice and fat in time for Oyster Fest. The chefs who will be roasting them, Chris Schlesinger (East Coast Grill) and Jamie Bissonnette (Toro) are in for a treat. We’ve been feeding them about 10 pastries a day and Hendo’s been mixing up a slop (including beer) for them every now and then. If this isn’t enough to make a chef fall in love, I don’t know what is.
Getting to work side by side with our chefs is a pretty big part of it all. We’re not just raising goddamn delicious oysters — we’re doing it in a way that works for the chefs. We create culls for them. We pick them at just the right size. And we spend hours putting together perfect bags. It’s a business but it’s one the growers and their crews are downright obsessed with doing well.
Which is why I’m almost reluctant to leave the farm for a week-long vacation. (I did say “almost.”) We’re headed to Mackinac Island, Michigan for the Murray Family Reunion tomorrow night — we’re road tripping out there and have stops in Cleveland and Chicago on the way to and from. (Dining at Alinea on Thursday night. And yes! They buy our oysters!) While I desperately need a break (my lower back could probably take a month off), leaving the farm and all of the seed is no easy feat. I can still see oysters when I close my eyes at night. Wonder if that goes away after a week? I’m guessing no…