It was like old times on the plaza during the June 10 Arcata Bay Oyster Festival: friends hugging and balancing topped up beers, lines for the food vendors lining the sidewalks and bands playing the main stage for an audience of dancers and picnickers in the grass. The official head count isn't in yet but, by all accounts, the crowds returned to mill about, nibbling from paper boats of oysters and barbecue in the sun. The Shuck and Swallow contestants and the oyster callers were back, too.
The oyster competition was also back, with judges huddled over score sheets around a table in the former Rita's just off the plaza. Meredith Matthews, who headed up the proceedings, wore a rhinestone tiara as she shuttled a wooden tray of raw oysters, a split pineapple top fountaining from its center. The Locavore and Best Cooked Oyster awards went to Nori, and Manzanilla Kitchen took Best Raw Oyster. But for the second year in a row, Best in Show went not to a restaurant with a booth on the plaza, but to David Orluck, an amateur chef working out of nearby Septentrio Winery.
Last year, when chefs gathered at Septentrio to compete with cooked and raw oysters — all pros but him, since one other home cook dropped out. "I realized I was the only person by myself with my kitchen gear that I brought from home." Nevertheless, he won the Dave Griswald Best Overall Oyster with his Umami Tsunami, a shooter with ponzu and mirin sauce with tobiko, quail egg, sriracha, sesame seeds and microgreens. This year, he was the lone amateur again, allowed to defend his title after partnering with Septentrio to cook at the winery and use refrigeration and other equipment from the Nosh food truck. His winning entry on Saturday, the Watermelon Sugar, was a lavish affair, with North Bay Shellfish Pacific oysters set atop purple urchins he'd harvested on Trinidad Beach and garnished with basil watermelon mignonette, seaweed-based Caviart and uni.
Orluck, a senior environmental analyst for Humboldt County, describes his day job as "kind of like a resident biologist," monitoring endangered species and the impacts of projects like trails, among other duties. He says he's been into cooking since childhood, but got into hunting and fishing after moving to Humboldt in 2010. The urchin gathering isn't a one-off for him, and he's always exploring new ways to cook the fish and game he brings home. Cooking "wild to table is a passion of mine," he says. "There's more aspects to it than your grandfather overcooking a hunk of deer."
Never having taken a culinary class, Orluck says he cooks by looking through recipes and following his own instincts, using friends as "guinea pigs" to test the results. For the Watermelon Sugar, he hosted six friends and served them seven experiments. He combined two of those for his final entry.
There was some hesitation about letting Orluck compete at first, as Arcata Main Street was trying to pull more vendors into the competition, which has seen declining entrants in recent years. "I didn't want to be a vendor and pay the fees ... but I wanted to compete and show what I've got." But as the day drew near, only half a dozen chefs were in the game and Orluck got the go ahead. He prepped his contest entries at the winery and spent the rest of the time shucking and selling "down version" oysters to patrons: a raw with pineapple mango salsa and a grilled one w/chimichurri and cured duck egg yolk.
Pre-pandemic, competing chefs had to enter the same oyster they were serving on the plaza, which somewhat limited the time and ingredients they could practically put into a dish. Expensive and painstaking to prep uni, for example, could price you out of selling enough to turn a profit and leave customers waiting in line for long stretches. Add the $600 booth fee and luxurious ingredients are an even bigger reach.
Matthews says she's in favor of the contest offering "a chance for these chefs to really go for it and be super creative." She acknowledges that "selling the same ones would be time consuming and cost prohibitive, but I can certainly see the allure of the customer getting a chance to taste that special oyster." During her tenure over the past three years, tasting all the winners wasn't an option. Last year, only a couple entrants were selling anything at the festival. "So I do think the rules probably need to be updated."
Allowing professional chefs to compete with more elaborate dishes than they're selling — perhaps in indoor kitchens and maybe even not while they're simultaneously trying to feed hundreds of people — could certainly broaden their creative options.
It could also dull Orluck's significant advantage. But he's not concerned. "This is just kind of a hobby, it's not gonna be a career path for me," he says, though he is talking with Septentrio about possible pop-up events and Oyster Fest 2024. But as he has no food business to promote, vending on the plaza isn't worth "the fees and the stress of breaking even." Getting the oysters to the judges intact is stress enough.
"Walking to Rita's was the most nerve-wracking part," he says with a chuckle. "It could be all over with one step."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at (707) 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Instagram @JFumikoCahill and on Mastodon @jenniferfumikocahill.