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Behind the Scenes at China’s First International Oyster Shucking Contest

From the Great Wall to the Shanghai waterfront, we tag along with the world’s best oyster openers.

Great Wall of China

Wall-to-wall fun at Shuck Off 2017.

It’s such a personal thing. It’s going into combat. But you’re not fencing with the other guys, you’re fencing with the oyster.” Montreal oyster impresario and former Canadian champion Daniel Notkin leans in close as he shares his philosophy of oyster shucking. His voice is soft, measured, almost dissolving into the din of conversation around us. Waves of Mandarin and Hu-dialect “Shanghainese” ebb and flow with English from a dozen or so international accents around the table, where the topics of conversation constitute a foreign language of their own, veering from knife preferences to oyster piracy to the practice of cage tumbling in bivalve farming. Behind us, the Shanghai cityscape unfolds beyond the 65th-floor windows of the Royal Méridien Shanghai HU Bar, with the baroque and art deco “museum of buildings” of the Bund in shadowy relief against the pulsing neon of Pudong. I rise and weave my way through a throng of blue-suited businessmen and fashionably turned-out Chinese twentysomethings, their plates piled perilously high with freshly shucked oysters, and arrive at the bar a moment too late: The two thousand oysters brought in for this evening’s event have already been served. “But we’ll all be heading to a great hot-pot place around midnight,” my host says. “That’s fine,” I think, plucking a fresh flute of bubbly from a passing tray. “Champagne is basically food.”

Southern Regional competition; Shanghai skyline

Left to right: Shucking against the clock in the Southern Regional competition; the soaring Shanghai skyline.

I’ve come here for Shuck Off 2017, China’s first-ever international oyster-opening competition, where I will criss-cross the country on a weeklong wave of Tsingtao, dim sum and shell-splitting mayhem. This travelling roadshow has brought together 10 oyster shuckers, representing eight countries, with more than a dozen national, international and world champion titles to their names, here to shuck off against a crop of local hopefuls. After tomorrow’s Southern Regional competition in Shanghai, we’ll shift to Beijing for the Northern Regional, before cutting south again for the grand finale in Fuzhou.

China’s culture of eating raw oysters is still young, and though the country is responsible for as much as 80 percent of commercial oyster production worldwide (most of this goes into oyster sauce and prepared products), I have never seen oysters of Chinese provenance on a raw-bar menu – even in China. Rudy Guo, Chinese-Canadian restaurateur and founder of the Shuck Off, has made it his mission to open the Chinese palate to oysters on the half shell, bringing Canadians like Notkin and eight-time national champ Eamon Clark as culinary cultural ambassadors. Owner of four oyster bars across Shanghai, Beijing and Fuzhou (as well as Pearl Diver in Toronto), Guo threw his first oyster party in 2010, running a red carpet out the front door of his Shanghai restaurant Osteria into the pool hall across the street. “We didn’t care if there were cars going over it. We had shuckers out on the sidewalk and in the pool hall. People were just shucking and sucking – shells everywhere!” Guo beams, noticeably proud. He waves a hand at the crowd in the dining room. “You can see what China has become: an oyster-eating powerhouse.”

Beijing meal; Shanghai First Foodhall

Left to right: Enjoying a late-night meal in Beijing; come on down to Shanghai First Foodhall.

With an explosion of bivalve-focused establishments like Guo’s, Chinese diners are now consuming an estimated 3,000 tonnes (roughly 30 million shells’ worth) of imported oysters each year: French Belons and Gillardeaus, Fanny Bays from British Columbia, New Zealand Blue Pearls, Puget Sound Fat Bastards – oysters from anywhere but China. “This is what China has been doing for three thousand years,” Guo explains, “sourcing the finest ingredients in the world, bringing them back to the empire and loving it.” Indeed, excepting the inclusion of soy sauce and wasabi or sweet chili sauce alongside the traditional lemon and mignonette, this nascent oyster culture is decidedly Western and distinctly luxe. A single oyster in a restaurant can cost CNY85 – $15 a slurp. “They’re a status symbol,” says Notkin. “A dozen of those Gillardeaus are like $200. You could just get a couple of small diamonds and leave them on the table!” Even if bivalves are catching on in China, the buck-a-shuck happy hour still seems a long way off.

Northern Regional Shuck Off; Sanyuanli market

Left to right: Counting down to the Northern Regional Shuck Off; vegging out in Beijing’s Sanyuanli market.

No one needs to tell you that walking the Great Wall is, well, pretty great; the superlative is built right into the name. But eating a freshly shucked oyster on the Zhengguan Terrace watchtower while looking out over the Mutianyu Valley? Put that on your bucket list. Standing atop one of the most impressive structures built by human hands, while watching a motley crew of Scandinavians, North Americans, Chinese and Europeans pop open oysters like they were tearing off Post-it notes, shouting oaths and encouragements in a half-dozen languages, the scene becomes surreally poignant. Realizing I am quite possibly doing something no one has ever done before, I pick up a freshly shucked Samish Bay Grand Cru and gaze across the hills to where the wall snakes into the distance. The setting is serene compared to the Blade Runner bustle of Beijing and Shanghai; I tip back my head and just take it in. “This is how they built the Great Wall,” Guo laughs, “one shell at a time!”

99 Yurts; Rudy Guo with Tom Stocks

Left to right: A Mongolian dance for after-dinner entertainment at the Beijing restaurant 99 Yurts; China’s oyster guru, Rudy Guo, with Tom Stocks of Washington’s Taylor Shellfish Farms.

Descending from the Wall later, I reflect that over the course of the week, I have heard shucking compared to horse racing, golf, hockey, fencing and F1, but oyster opening seems less a sport than it is a calling. There are, after all, no six-figure endorsements for opening with a Nike oyster knife. Most of these shuckers work in kitchens, and some run world-renowned seafood restaurants (Rodney’s in Toronto, the 300-year-old Morans Oyster Cottage in Galway, Ireland). There’s also one part-time screenwriter, a Ph.D.-candidate engineer and a youth cultural and public health coordinator from a tiny town on the Norwegian coast. They’re in it for the love. They’re in it for the shuck of it.

Unico Beijing; oyster platter; Daniel Notkin

Clockwise from left: Time out for a drink at Unico Beijing; this oyster platter is picture perfect; Daniel Notkin is ready to shuck.

“If chefs are rock stars, shuckers are the cowboys of the restaurant world,” someone tells me in Fuzhou. It’s an apt, if romantic, analogy. Like the mythic gunslinger, the shucker travels solo, making his or her name in short, controlled bursts of furious delicacy – the fine balance between speed and precision. It can all be over in a minute – or, at this level of competition, under 90 seconds for a dozen oysters. Shuckers are judged not only on their speed but also on their skill and presentation. “Are you going to do it fast or do it clean?” Notkin asks as we relax before the final, but he knows the question is academic. “You’re getting in the hinge but also using one of your fingers to torsion up the shell so the body can fall away in the shell, then you come in and you aim just for the muscle, you pop the muscle, then you turn it toward yourself and you cut it. You can’t say, ‘I’m going to take the extra second’ – 12 seconds puts you way out of the game. In the moment, it’s immeasurable.”

Great Wall; Shuck Off 2017

Left to right: A wall that lives up to its name; they came, they saw, they oystered in China’s first international competition.

That night in the ballroom of the Fuzhou Hyatt, at the centre of the maelstrom of glitz and pageantry that is the Shuck Off 2017 grand finale – a laser light show, a six-course meal prepared by international chefs including Sichuan seafood specialist “Lobster Luke” Lu Wentao and Noma Australia alum Elijah Holland, not one but two fashion shows, a Chinese rapper and, of course, prodigious quantities of champagne and prosecco – it all comes down to a few seconds. Eamon Clark, heir apparent of Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto, has come out of the final heat with a raw time of 1 minute 2.75 seconds against the newly crowned Chinese national champion, 19-year-old “Evan” Lĭ Yúnyì, who has dropped jaws with a stunning 1 minute 0.07 second finish. But one is not a champion by speed alone, and a few penalties such as a ruptured mantle or bit of shell can make or break a shucker. As the judges make their rounds and the inspected oysters are relinquished to an eager audience, a hush falls over the hall.

Shanghai; Beijing food market; shucking champ Lĭ Yúnyì; Yang’s Fried Dumplings

Clockwise from top left: Hello from Shanghai; urchins, conch and snails for sale at a Beijing food market; Chinese national shucking champ Lĭ Yúnyì works fast; don’t miss Yang’s Fried Dumplings in the Shanghai First Foodhall.

A bespectacled grey eminence who I have only heard referred to as the “Oyster Godfather” examines each of the plates with a jeweller’s acuity, a flashlight-wielding assistant at his side. (“I’ve never seen that before,” my tablemate whispers to me. “That is so harsh!”) Cleanliness is, after all, next to godliness, and even competition oysters must be shucked to a fine-dining standard. The crowd erupts in two waves as the adjusted times are announced, first in Mandarin and then English: 1 minute 28.7 seconds for Lĭ, against Clark’s 1 minute 17.75 seconds. As Clark takes the stage, and the CNY10,000 grand prize, he nods to Lĭ. “That kid was incredible,” he admits. “His plate was so perfect, so clean. In a few years, he’s going to be unbeatable.”

Chef Lu Wentao; spicy Szechuan lobster; the Oyster Godfather and a fellow judge

Clockwise from left: Chef Lu Wentao and the spicy Szechuan lobster with noodles that he created for the Shuck Off gala dinner in Fuzhou; the Oyster Godfather and a fellow judge inspect a shucker’s plate in Fuzhou.

The baby-faced Lĭ only started shucking and tasted his first raw oyster a year ago, when he got a job at Guo’s Shanghai restaurant, the Plump Oyster. Since then he has become, in his own description, “an oyster addict.” I ask him what his plans are next, whether he wants to become a professional oyster opener, and he cracks a mischievous grin as our interpreter relays his response: He already is a pro oyster opener.

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