WELLFLEET — Six-time champion Chopper Young won Wellfleet’s Oyster Shuck Off last year, opening his 24 oysters in a penalty-adjusted time of 3 minutes and 15 seconds. Calen Bricault was close behind, with an adjusted time of 3:34.
The day before this year’s contest — which was filmed by Lower Cape TV on Sunday and will be viewable on its website on Thursday, Oct. 7 at 5 p.m. — Bricault wouldn’t speculate about his chances. He confirmed that Young would not be competing this year, but said there are plenty of other excellent shuckers to contend with.
Nancy O’Connell, president of the nonprofit Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting, the event organizer, said there were 11 competitors this year: Barbara Austin, Clint Austin (Barbara’s son), Calen Bricault, Ryan Brown, Anton Christen, Ted Karalekas, Ben Morgan, Brad Morse, Andy Rogers, Keith Rose, and Henry Valdez.
Bricault has won the Shuck Off twice before, in 2019 and 2015. But last year’s runner-up finish was just fine with him. “It’s about the experience and the show,” he says, “not only about winning.”
Even though he grew up in Wellfleet, Bricault never opened an oyster until he was a teenager. That’s when he got his first job where shucking was a requirement, at the Bookstore & Restaurant. Watching James Gray work the raw bar there made shucking look easy (Gray is another two-time Shuck Off winner — he took first place in 2008 and 2012). Bricault realized it wasn’t so easy when he had to face a crowd at a Bookstore event.
Mike Parlante gave Bricault a crash course in bare-handed hinge-style shucking, and he has been popping oysters open with minimal effort ever since. Shucking is still part of his job — he opens hundreds of oysters a day during busy weeks at Mac’s Market. He set a personal record for most oysters shucked in one day a couple of summers ago while working at the Wellfleet Pearl: he shucked over a thousand oysters in one shift.
Bricault has stuck with the traditional hinge method of opening bivalves rather than side-cutting the oysters, which some competitors prefer. He doesn’t use a custom or homemade blade, either. He likes to place the tip of the same knife he uses at work every day — a Dexter-Russell —directly into the hinge.
The key, he says, is to stick the tip of the blade into the hinge securely enough that you could twirl the knife in a circle and the oyster would not fall off. Once in, tilt the handle straight down, pushing the blade tip up, until you hear a “pop,” then you’re ready to sever the top shell of the oyster and flip the meat in the cup. If you’ve done it right, the oyster will be intact and slurpable directly from the half shell.
At the Shuck Off, the task at hand seems straightforward enough. Contestants, all professionals, according to OysterFest rules, open 24 oysters as quickly as possible in front of a panel of judges who keep time and inspect for quality. Penalties are assessed for oysters that haven’t been shucked cleanly enough. Or for blood.
No, not the clear hemolymph oysters’ hearts pump. The blood that counts against a shucker would be his own. It was, in fact, a slashed finger that cost Bricault first place last year, he said.
Winning the Shuck Off is not really about technique or stamina, Bricault says. It’s more a matter of learning how to manage your mindset while racing against the clock.
“Take your time, even though you’re going as fast as you can,” he advises.
“Go through your oysters before you even shuck them,” he adds. He places them carefully on the tray, thinking about how he’ll pick up each one. “Though it does get messy quickly, the goal is to not have to reach too far.”
Maybe he does take the competition a little more seriously than he used to, Bricault says. But mostly, despite some nerves, the scene is a lighthearted one. After all, he says, “You’re still eating and drinking the whole time.”