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Air Force colonel-turned-oyster farmer Bruce Wood pilots his boat from his dock toward a tiny island in the middle of Nomini Creek in Virginia’s Northern Neck.
“Now, here’s a dichotomy,” says Wood, wearing a bright pink shirt and khaki shorts, as the wind blows back his hair on a recent Saturday. “I was in charge of all the combat support IT programs, and now I’m oystering. I have a master’s degree in computer science, but I’m oystering.”
He stops just in front of some buoys in the shallow water and yanks a cage to the side of his boat. “Those are oysters. They’re ready to harvest,” he says before letting them splash back in the water.
But they’re not just any oysters. They’re Hank’s Oyster Bar’s signature oysters: Hayden’s Reefs. They’ve been grown no more than six feet deep in the creek’s low-salinity water so that they develop the mild flavor that Hank’s chef and owner Jamie Leeds desires. They’re named after Leeds’ 9-year-old son.
Hank’s first debuted the oysters when it opened its expanded dining room in Dupont last year. In six months, the restaurants shucked 50,000 of them. A new crop is scheduled to arrive within a week.
Meanwhile, restaurateur Jeff Black will debut his first two signature oysters—Black Pearls and Old Black Salts—this week during a one year anniversary celebration for Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Black Jack. Wood also helped cultivate the Black Pearls in partnership with Toby Island Bay Oyster Company. The Old Black Salts are grown by Rappahannock River Oysters, which also cultivated McCormick & Schmick’s signature M&S Sweets.
The private-label oyster is the ultimate symbol of seafood cred. And with D.C.’s growing pool of oyster-centric restaurants, bivalves of their own set places like Hank’s and Black Restaurant Group apart. The appeal is two-fold: Restaurateurs get something no one else has, while claiming a direct hand in helping clean the local waterways. Oysters are already known as aphrodisiacs, but as a marketing device, chefs seem to believe signature oysters are straight-up sexy.
Wood, owner of Dragon Creek Aqua Farm in Montross, Va., is the common denominator for both Leeds’ and Black’s oysters. After 30 years in the military, including several stints at the Pentagon, Wood retired in 2001 and bought the property on Nomini Creek. It’s just across the Potomac River from Cobb Island, Md., where he grew up. Oystering initially started as a hobby. Oysters are great natural filters, and Wood wanted to help clean up the water in which he crabbed, fished, and harvested oysters as a kid. “I’m trying to save the bay,” he says. “You’re not saving the bay unless you’re saving the creeks.”
Within a few years of cultivating oysters, Wood realized he had more than he knew what to do with. He decided to sell them. He and his wife Barb have another home in Alexandria, where there is a Hank’s location, so Wood approached Leeds about buying his product.
Today, 95 percent of Wood’s oysters at Nomini Creek go to Hank’s. “When there was any kind of lack of supply, I would always be the first one he would supply,” Leeds says. “So we had a good symbiotic relationship there, and I would always make sure that I bought oysters from him.”
In 2010, Wood pitched Leeds the idea of growing a type of oyster specifically for Hank’s. “Why not have your own oyster if you’ve got your own oyster bar? That’s what it basically came from,” Wood says.
Black, on the other hand, initially considered leasing land for his own oyster farm after his fishmonger MJ Gimbar came to him with that idea. Black reached out to his oyster purveyors, including Wood and Rappahannock, for advice. “They both just said, ‘Listen, why would you do that? Why don’t you let us do it? That’s what we do.’”
So Black commissioned signature oysters from both. The oysters, which will be available at Black’s Bar & Kitchen, Pearl Dive Oyster Palace, BlackSalt, and the forthcoming Empire Oyster House, will be medium-sized and firm-fleshed with high salinity. Because Black wanted a saltier oyster than Wood was able to produce in Nomini Creek, Wood partnered with Dan Grosse of Toby Island Bay Oysters to grow the oysters in the Chincoteague Bay on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The marine biologist is also an oyster hobbyist-turned-purveyor who teaches environmental management at the University of Maryland.
Meanwhile, Rappahannock River Oysters will grow the Old Black Salts in an area of Chincoteague Bay coincidentally called Black Narrows, where there are high ocean currents and algae levels. The result is a salty oyster with a sweet finish and green-tinted shell.
Rappahannock co-owner Travis Croxton says his farm began growing signature oysters for McCormick & Schmick’s three years ago—before Leeds teamed up with Wood—but there was never any marketing campaign around it. The M&S Sweets are available at a handful of McCormick & Schmick’s East Coast locations.
Aside from the fact that they’re named by restaurateurs and marketed as private-label oysters, Wood says the oysters are unique. “Everybody says an oyster’s an oyster. That’s not true. If you can’t taste the difference, shame on you,” Wood says. As we stand in his kitchen, he points out two not-so-distant points in the creek: “From there to the other area, the flavor will change substantially. If I go out into the depths, it will change again.” In Nomini Creek, deeper waters mean saltier oysters, but less oxygen means they take longer to grow.
Other factors can affect oysters’ taste, including salinity, the mix of phytoplankton, temperature, and how much time they’re exposed to air during low tides, Grosse says: “It’s like wine, but even more so. They really do reflect their environment.” In some areas, oysters grown 100 feet from each other have a different taste; elsewhere, the differences are less pronounced.
What makes the oysters “signature” is the fact that the locations where they are grown are chosen according to the clients’ preferences. Leeds wanted a mild oyster, and Black a saltier one, which dictated which locations they claimed.
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As “farm-to-table” becomes so trendy it’s a cliché, being part of a farm, rather than just ordering from one, looks to be the next frontier for locavore restaurateurs. Some restaurant groups have farms, gardens, or apiaries; oyster reefs just extend that trend. After all, serving a local oyster is one-upped only by serving your own local oyster. “It’s always fun to have something that no one else has, and to honor the farmer,” Leeds says.
For diners, too, there’s an appeal in getting something they can’t get anywhere else. And while several restaurant groups have their own exclusive varieties of beer or wine with their names across the label, the signature oyster is a true novelty—at least for now.
Black, however, claims he’s not in it for the exclusivity factor. In fact, he welcomes other restaurants to serve his signature oysters. “The point of this: The more oysters we’re growing in the Chesapeake, the healthier the Chesapeake is going to be,” Black says. “We’re not only growing the oysters, but then we’re using the shells for the oyster recovery program. The more you sell, the more shell that gets back in the bay, the faster rate that the bay cleans up. So if somebody likes ’em, sell ’em.”
Already the idea of the signature oyster seems to be catching on. Celebrity chef Todd English bought an oyster farm in Westport, Conn., over the summer, where he grows Todd English Bluepoints. Croxton says he’s also been talking with another celebrity chef about private oysters. But both he and Wood are hesitant about cultivating special oysters for everyone.
“I think you’ll see lots of copycats coming on. There always are, which is fine,” Croxton says. “But the more people that have a signature, the less sexy it is.”
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Photo by Jessica Sidman