Daniel Notkin at Oysterfest Credit: MIchael Gebert

Shaw’s Oysterfest is an annual event held near the long-time River North crab house of the same name, and besides local oyster shuckers (like, well, Shaw’s), they bring in oyster purveyors of various types from all over the country . . . or, in this case, the country directly to our north. I got to talk to two of the visiting suppliers before the festival began last Friday; today it’s Daniel Notkin, who co-owns Montreal’s Notkin’s Bar à Huîtres (oyster bar) near the Place d’Armes as well as the seafood importer the Old Port Fishing Company. He’s a champion oyster shucker, most recently taking first place at Seafood Expo North America in Boston in March. And, as founder of the Open Pier Foundation and collaborator on a documentary about oyster sustainability called Shuckers, he’s also heavily involved in oyster conservancy. Watch the film’s trailer and you’ll see that he’s a high-energy advocate for the tasty bivalve, despite the surprising fact that he never even tried one until he was 29. 

So if he’s trying so hard to save them, what’s he doing cutting them open and eating them? Well, he says, oysters are a crop where the more you eat, the better it is for them. I asked him to tell me more.

Michael Gebert: So oysters in Canada—I guess I’ve had oysters from Canada here. Tell me about them.

Daniel Notkin: They’re spectacular, some of the best in the world. You get them here, in fact they’re gaining in popularity. The Malpeque from Prince Edward Island, that originally came out of Malpeque Bay, was recognized in I believe 1911, 1915, as the best oyster in the world, equal to the Bluepoint [from Long Island]. 

What are they like?

The beauty of Canada is the variation. New Brunswick oysters are all in the same ballpark, a beautiful butteriness, like cold butter with a little bit of ocean on them. When the season starts up in the fall, and they’re eating their food and turning it into glycogen to hibernate, it can almost verge on this lobster kind of butter quality to them, they have this richness. 

Prince Edward Island oysters, they vary from having this beautiful salinity with a light little chicken stock quality, vegetal stock, because they eat that algae. One of my favorite oysters is a very rare one, the Colville Bay, down in the south of the island. Totally different, perfect flowing water, sea grass, little sweetness—a perfect, perfect oyster. 

The interesting thing is that there used to only be a few kinds. But with the boom in oysters, we’re seeing all the little growers—because what they do in many places is, they grow out their oysters to a smaller seed, and they sell it to the bigger companies. And what these little growers are saying is, wait a minute, why don’t I grow out my oysters? I see the viability now, there’s easier distribution, easier refrigeration. So you’ve seen this explosion of oysters on Prince Edward Island where there’s thirty different kinds of oysters, where there used to be, like, five before. 

Well, it’s not like you have to buy feed for it like a cow. It’s pretty much taking care of itself, right?

It is, but the added danger in Canada is that cold weather. Because of the cold weather and the low sunlight—in the Gulf [of Mexico], you get a four inch oyster in about a year. In Massachusetts, eighteen months. In Canada, Prince Edwards Island, five years. So two years ago, we had that terrible winter storm, most farmers lost about 20 percent of their stock. That affects it for a year to two years, if we don’t see it rebalance itself. We’re hoping that this year will be a nice mild winter to give them a break.

Notkin wielding his bodkin.Credit: Michael Gebert

You’d think, Canada, in five years there’d have to be at least one really bad winter.

Yeah, it’s Canada, they’re all bad. It’s just varying degrees of horrible.

So you’re not from Montreal?

I am from Montreal. Three generations in Montreal. But I spent my summers in Gloucester, Massachusetts; we have a summer house there. Which is the first fishing port in America. And that’s where I really learned my love for the ocean—we would dive for lobsters and crabs and sea urchins. Then I had my first oyster at 29. And then incorporated that and started shucking, and now that’s what I do. 

Now I’m a competitive shucker, as silly as that sounds. If that’s even a thing. I think to myself, I cannot believe that I have an undergrad in bio/psych premed, and a master’s degree in novel and screenplay writing, and I shuck oysters and come to great events like this. This was exactly my five-year plan.

Well, speaking of filmmaking, you did a documentary.

I did a documentary called Shuckers, and I filmed that with my old friend Tim Rozon, who owns a great restaurant in Montreal, Garde Manger, and they do amazing seafood and oysters as well. We spent four years, and we went around to P.E.I., and through New England and New York, and went to the farmers, and saw the devastation down in the Gulf. 

Oysters, you know, are the canaries of the ocean. If they go, we’re really in trouble. And we’re starting to see them go because of ocean acidification and pollution. Each oyster—this is a fun fact for you—filters 50 gallons of water a day. So if you can imagine a bay with a million gallons of water, that’s 50 million gallons of water filtered every day. So if you’re in a bay with these oysters, you can see 30 feet down, clean, pristine.

And when the sunlight comes down, the sea grass grows, which binds and holds that whole sea coast area. Then the little fish come in and take shelter, and the bigger fish come in, and you’ve created an ecosystem that the oysters are the linchpin of. If they’re not there, that ecosystem doesn’t exist. And the algae comes and blooms in the summer months, and causes the red tide, which kills that whole coast and all the sea life. Plus, the bacteria that eat the algae also consume oxygen, so you’re going to get this double-dead oxygen environment.

Credit: Michael Gebert

Oysters really hold this whole environment together. So then people say, ‘Well, if they’re so great, why do we eat them?’ Oysters are the only food in the world that the more you eat, the better it is for the planet. The reason is that they went through what fish are going through now, a hundred years ago. In 1840, nobody thought they could eat all the oysters, but with the advent of rail transportation, they were harvested to near extinction by 1900 in so many areas—Chesapeake Bay, France, England.

Because of that they had to be farmed, and now the farmer gets those seeds, or the hatchlings which they collect in the wild, and grow them out on his property. But you can’t keep them like that for more than their first seed stage, so then they’re putting them out naturally in the environment and they’re cleaning the environment. Every oyster you eat, that I import or you get from someone else, that money goes back to the farmers so they can buy more seed, buy more land, and have a bigger voice in Congress, clean more water and save the planet. So don’t feel bad about eating oysters. You should feel great about eating them!

[Noticing the bandage on his hand] So, did you miss while shucking oysters recently?

No, no . . . this is a lovely little blister I got. I don’t really miss anymore, thank God, but this is because I did 400 beautiful Chesapeake oysters. I didn’t bring my competition knife to this, because I’m competing next week in Prince Edward Island, I’m competing for my third straight win at the PEI Raspberry Point Shellfish Festival, so I wanted to keep my competition knife pristine. So I brought my other knife, it’s a little different, and shucked 400 oysters—and they are tough! I gotta go down to my friends at Bourbon Street Oyster Bar and get some pointers—they hammer some rocks and these were rocks

Credit: Michael Gebert