The internet is replete with “Best of” and “Top 10” lists for everything under the sun – wineries, restaurants, cocktails, views, albums, dog groomers – the lists go on, with stranger and more obscure categories constantly joining the ranks of the renowned. But I have yet to come across a list of best oyster shuckers. I know what you’re thinking: there are plenty of oyster shucking contests held at which seasoned shuckers compete to see who can break open bivalves the fastest. But surely there must be more to shucking than mere speed. Were such a Top 10 list to exist, I have no doubt that John Bertino would be well in contention for first place.
John Bertino has been shucking oysters for just over a decade or, as he likes to tell it, he was shucking before shucking was cool. These days, he can be found in a small corner of the bar at Oyster Club in Mystic, directly in front of seats number 7 and 8, which, I am told, are the two most-coveted seats in the house. Signed shucking knives, each with its own story, are on display all around Bertino. The raw bar is Bertino’s stage, and he is the main attraction. An odd role for someone so seemingly devoid of any pretentions and who would just as soon be shucking oysters in the parking lot at his favorite concert as in this popular eatery. Perched in seat number 7, I chat amicably with John as he sorts oysters in preparation for the evening. Just as chefs – once hidden in hot kitchens, virtuously anonymous to the hungry patrons awaiting their meals – have become the new superstars of reality TV, food and wine festivals, and other media outlets, shuckers are slowly gaining stardom, as the best are increasingly being sought out by lovers of this exquisite shellfish.
I determined to eschew the typical interrogatories – how do you shuck an oyster (Google it), what’s your favorite oyster (interesting, but…) – and delve a little deeper. What does it take to be a great shucker? When it comes to something that is typically ordered by the dozen, speed certainly is a factor. After shucking a career count of two million oysters, Bertino is a well-oiled shelling machine. Opening the oyster without cracking the shell is a must – one doesn’t want to lose any of the delectable liquor (the clear liquid found inside the oyster shell) or impale any patrons’ expectant lips. John’s opener of choice is a flat-bladed shucking knife. The curved tip knives, I am told, are for rookies. But don’t try the flat blade at home unless you’re a seasoned pro, John warns. One wrong move, and it will go right through your hand.
I ask John about the adductor – the small muscle that secures the oyster to the bottom shell. I’ve slurped dozens of delicious oysters only to find the adductor left behind on the shell. And I want it. It’s good. So I go in with a fork and scrape it off and shovel it into my mouth, thereby ending my elegant display of oyster-eating prowess. John’s go-with-the-flow personality hits pause for a moment. There are some cultures that do not remove the adductors. He cites the French as being among them (who, he claims, are also responsible for what he considers superfluous oyster forks). On this point, he is non-negotiable, stating simply, “You need to detach the adductor or the oyster isn’t shucked.”
Finally, there’s the presentation. This is where Bertino becomes the most passionate. Each oyster is gently tapped on the bar before being nestled in its icy repository. John says this centers the marine mollusk and makes it look nice. “I can make every oyster perfect.”
I eagerly delve into the platter of Ninigrete Nectar, Niantic Bay, East Beach, Wild Goose, Watch Hill, and Noank oysters John has prepared for me while we were chatting. The first bivalve slithers down my throat, adductor in tow. Perfect. As a matter of fact, too perfect. There are no shell fragments or sediment of any kind. I am curious how these oysters came to be so clean. I want to learn how to clean oysters like this. Alas, there was no lesson to be had on this particular day. All of The Oyster Club’s oysters are brought in directly from local oyster farms and served as they are, without scrubbing or soaking of any kind. I sit there, savoring, but still suspicious of their pristine state. And that’s when John reveals a little secret. After opening each oyster and severing the adductor, he gently slides one finger under the oyster and sweeps out any sediment that has congregated in the liquor in the corner of the shell. If that’s not great shucking, what is?
But John Bertino doesn’t see it that way. “I’m not a great shucker, but I’m a really good shucker,” he states somewhat sheepishly. I inquire what more he thinks he needs to consider himself great, but I’m clearly barking up the wrong tree. He’s not in it for the accolades. This is his dream job, and what matters is how much fun he has doing it. For Bertino, shucking is therapy; it keeps his head together, whether he’s serving guests at Oyster Club, or bartering bivalves for t-shirts at a Dead & Company tailgate party. There may yet come a day when his name is inscribed on a Top 10 list, but, for now, Bertino is content to just keep shuckin’ on.