On a busy night at True Chesapeake Oyster Co., the stylish seafood restaurant in Clipper Mill, Darron Thomison might shuck 1,000 oysters.
When he started a year ago, he didn’t wear Crocs or use the special locally made Dale German knife that he now wields with such confidence. He didn’t know how to tell a smaller, saltier Huckleberry from a thicker-shelled, generously portioned Chunky Dunker, much less how to adjust his technique to pry open each one and release the sweet, opalescent meat inside.
Thomison, 19, a recent graduate of the nearby Academy for College and Career Exploration (ACCE), has proven to be a rare find: an oyster shucker with the talent, strength, work ethic and patience to feed a restaurant full of discerning mollusk-lovers.
Sometimes Patrick Hudson, the owner of True Chesapeake, can’t believe his luck in finding this oyster-shucking phenom. Hudson opened the restaurant in 2019, stocking it with oysters grown on the harvesting farm he started in 2012 on St. Jerome Creek in southern Maryland.
By that time, the Chesapeake Bay, once capable of yielding millions of bushels of oysters a year, was oystered-out – a decline that had started in the 1970s.
Farmed oysters, Hudson had told himself and his investors, were the sustainable and delicious future of quality seafood restaurants in the region. State lawmakers thought so, too, making oyster farming legal starting in 2009.
But when Hudson opened the restaurant, experienced shuckers were in short supply. The decades-long chain of one generation teaching the next had been broken. “It’s kind of a lost trade,” says Hudson.
Shucking an oyster is a little bit physics, a little bit love, and a lot of attention to detail.
By 2019, the few experienced shuckers still working were close to retirement. They hadn’t taught potential successors how to grip the bulb at the end of the specially designed knife, how to insert the knife tip into the tightly clasped shell, how to wiggle and turn that knife, how to assess that each oyster is healthy and sweet, how to slice the muscle holding the meat to the shell.
And they certainly hadn’t taught anyone how do it again and again, 999 more times in a single night.
Thomison didn’t know either. He had never even eaten an oyster, as far as he could recall. But he was looking for work, and True Chesapeake needed a dishwasher.
One night, the regular shucker didn’t show, and Hudson gave Thomison a tutorial and put him to work. “Oyster-shucking is a craft,” says Hudson. “Right away, when Darron starting shucking, people started commenting about how beautiful the oysters looked.”
In the beginning, Thomison says, he was slow, and “I stabbed myself a lot.” But he soon learned how to hold the towel in order to protect his hand. He learned how to nestle the released meat back into the shell’s pool of liquor, and how to scrape away any shell fragments, so diners would have the silkiest, most satisfying gulp of seafood. He got faster and more confident. He learned to appreciate the different oysters and the flavorful mignonette that goes with them.
Thomison works at the restaurants Thursdays through Saturdays, standing each night behind mounds of oysters that diminish with each order. Those oysters, and Thomison, are the first things customers see when they walk in the door.
He doesn’t mind the attention. He likes being good at something that other people can’t do, something that literally puts food on their tables.
Thomison didn’t plan to be an oyster shucker and it probably won’t be his career, he says. He’s interested in computer science. But he’s fixing the broken oyster-shucker chain by teaching other restaurant employees his techniques.
“I just love shucking oysters,” he says now.