Q: How did you get to the North Fork?
A: I’m born and raised on the North Fork. My parents moved there in the 70s, are still married and living in the same house. But when I was old enough I moved around quite a bit—I like to travel to surf, visit different oceans and cultures. I came back to the North Fork after college, and ended up staying a little by accident—a stroke of luck.
I was a biology student in South Florida, and then I was a boat captain, and looking for a job. I came back for a summer job.
I started volunteering for Cornell Cooperative Extension, and they put me on a boat right away—because of fishing I had a lot of experience on boats, big boats. After a few months, a job that would be perfect for me opened up, and I took it. I worked for them for seven years. They are such an amazing organization.
Q: A North Fork native! How did you begin oyster farming?
A: Well, I’ve been a fisherman and a bayman–scalloping–for years, but working for Cornell I got interested in aquaculture. During the time I worked for them they coached me on starting my own aquaculture business. There’s a long paperwork process to get into aquaculture, but in 2013 I successfully launched. I started harvesting on a commercial scale in 2015.
It’s important to start small to get competent at logistics, equipment, practices. I spent a lot of time with a small amount of oysters to get the groundwork proper. In 2015 we started harvesting substantial amounts.
That’s also when I started my catering service, bringing our oysters to the vineyards. I had been already working at Jamesport Vineyards in the summer in their raw bar, so I had that experience.
Q: You mean you have a portable raw bar and catering service? And you take it to the vineyards? Yum.
A: Yes. I harvest the oysters in the morning, serve them in the afternoon at whichever vineyard we’re teaming up with. We even try to tailor the different sauces with the kind of wine they’re serving.
Everyone thinks fish and shellfish go with white, but because oysters are served with a red sauce often, oysters can be matched with the reds too. Cab franc or a cab sauv can pair with a regular cocktail sauce, with some heat to it, or a BBQ sauce.
For whites I do a mignonette. I mean, everyone does a mignonette, but I do it with different fruits in season, or ones with the notes in the wine. I do one with local honey, mint, and basil; a peach basil; a blueberry cucumber mignonette.
The blueberry mignonette
Pretty much Memorial Day to Thanksgiving we’re at a vineyard or event every weekend. Come see me there; find me on Facebook, or you can email me to find out where we’ll be. I do private parties too.
Q: Biologist, bayman, oyster farmer…chef? Those pairings sauces sound creative. Do you have any chef training?
A: No. I’m no chef, far from it. I just like the culinary side; I get bored with the traditional stuff. I just like to eat, and I like oysters.
The things we’re trying to accentuate about this area aren’t just the wines, or the oysters. It’s also the fruit—the peaches I got from Wickham’s that morning. We are what we eat; it makes a big difference to me.
Q: Using local fruit in the sauces pairing your half shell oysters with North Fork wine sounds delicious. Do you cook oysters too?
A: I cook with them all the time.
I do an oyster bruschetta pizza. You cook the oysters on the cheese and then I make a fresh bruschetta on top. I go to Harbes for purple peppers, it makes the bruchetta so colorful.
Oysters Rockefeller with spinach and bacon are also a favorite. I don’t yet sell those at wineries, I don’t yet have the paperwork sorted for that, but am hoping to do it this summer.
Do you know why oysters are supposed to taste better in months with R?
Q: I’d heard that—that oysters are better in months with R, but no, I have no idea why. They taste great in June and August too, so I wasn’t sure if there was anything to that. Why months with R?
A: Oysters produce a natural glycogen, a simple sugar. It’s the food they survive on internally when there is no food in the water. It’s also an antifreeze—oysters are intertidal, and can get exposed at tide. If that happens they would freeze without the glycogen.
That’s why they’re sweeter in months with R. They’re building mass for going dormant in the winter.
Q: Oysters hibernate and that’s why they’re sweetest in months with R? That’s cool. But to be honest, I don’t think of oysters as particularly active in general—it’s not like the bear sleeping in a cave. So what do you mean?
A: Well, they clam up. When the water is cold, say 45 degrees, oysters for the most part go dormant. They don’t each much—there’s no algae to eat. That’s why the water’s so clear in the winter, no algae in it. The oysters don’t really start pumping and feeding until spring.
Q: So is the oysters’ winter dormancy how your able to sail around the Carribean this winter?
A: Yes. I mean, I spent a lot of my winters off shore commercial fishing, fishing tuna, doing research on draggers. I still spend a lot of time off shore tuna fishing. I love being on the water.
This is my second year sailing the Caribbean. I’m sailing a 1978 30’ Tartan I bought in Connecticut a couple years ago, she needed some love. Sailing the Caribbean has just always been a dream. I grew up sailing. From time to time friends come along, but often they have no sailing experience, so I do all the sailing my self.
I got to see the swimming pigs in The Bahamas yesterday. I’m on the other side of the island right now, I could throw a rock and hit it.
Q: Sailing the winter Caribbean by yourself, popping into the Bahamas. Sounds glorious.
A: It is. Part of what I love about it is it’s low impact living. I try to make a small impact on the earth. I’ve only burned 20 gallons fuel in the sailboat and 10 for the dingy since about New Years—seven weeks ago. That’s less than I would use in my house or boat doing week for three days.
It’s actually cheaper and easier to live this way in the winter than stay on the North Fork.
Q: So which months are you sailing? And you said this was your second winter doing it—are you retracing your steps?
A: I sail in October, come back for scallop season in November and December. I harvest and sell through the end of scallop season, make sure my customers have what they need. If my oysters are sweet—and they always are—I know they’ll last through the winter fine, they’re healthy. Then I sail to April. Last year I went Block to Cape May, New Jersey to Virginia to the inner waters, the great dismal swamp—the first man made waterway. Then I went to Charleston.
This year in October I did some damage to my boat in an offshore storm, left it in St. Augustine, when I came back for bay scallop season. Then I went back in December and headed to the Caribbean.
Some guys are still out there working hard in the winter, Peconic pearls, Peconic gold, they’re out there year round; some have a hatchery. I worked hard winters for 10 years, I don’t need to keep doing that–I don’t have hatchery. I don’t have kids or a mortgage either, so I can choose a seasonal business.
Q: I interviewed Giovanni Borghese of Borghese Vineyards and discovered that he too is a solo Caribbean sailor. Do you guys know each other?
A: Yes—in fact it’s kind of Giovanni’s fault that I took off last October. We were hanging out on my boat that August, watching the super moon and having dinner. I showed him my new navigation program, and he zoomed in on the Caribbean, said: ‘I sailed from here to here to here,’ and then he zoomed out and pointed across the ocean to The Azores. Seeing that Caribbean and cross ocean journey made me just need to make some of my own tracks.
Q: That’s funny, Giovanni Borghese is sort of to blame for you seeing The Bahamas pigs swimming and your glorious Caribbean cruise. Will he sail with you this winter?
A: Of course he’s welcome aboard any time.