An Oyster Primer With Kerry Heffernan

You may have conquered eating raw oysters, but do you know how to cultivate them or which are the best months to eat them in? We spoke with Kerry Heffernan, executive chef at South Gate and oyster cultivator extraordinaire, to answer these questions and more for us.

How did you get involved in oyster cultivation?

I was approached by the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County to join their SPAT program. There are about 40 homeowners in Sag Harbor and 20 people in the community garden who act as shepherds for the oysters. It's very easy. Some of the goals are aquaculture training and the establishment of a community project that betters the quality of the town and the water.

You are given spat (fingernail sized oysters) to start with, which you hang under the dock and cultivate into large oysters. Then half of the oysters are given back to the SPAT program to be put into local creeks and bays.

The long-term goal is to restore the bay. The algae at times can be too much — the famous Red Tide, for example. More oysters means more filter feeders, which means more oxygen going into the water so you're less likely to get algae blooms.

What have been the biggest challenges?

It is a little bit of work to keep clean and make sure the shells don't have holes drilled into them. You have to watch out for sea slugs. It's sort of like keeping your yard clean. I guess the biggest challenge would have to be with my pride. It gets very competitive and oysters thrive in strong currents. The currents near me are less strong so some of the other people's oysters are significantly larger than mine.

How should we eat oysters sustainably?

Like anything you have to be careful. The old adage is only eat oysters in months with "r's" in their name and you'll notice that June, July, and August are without "r's." You don't eat the oysters in the summer months because they spawn around April and spend their energy trying to fatten up during the summer. If you are growing your own oysters and can check them every week, then you may be able to find some that are ready to eat, but generally you avoid those months. I eat oysters in the cooler months generally.

What are your favorite oysters?

My favorite oysters are from this region north — anywhere from Long Island to Nova Scotia. I've always loved Fishers Island oysters and Wellfleets. Also, Widow's Holes, which come from Greenport, NY.

What was your first experience eating an oyster?

My first experience was when I was a kid in Connecticut. My friends and I, as young reckless youth, would start bonfires out of old Christmas trees. Of course since they were so dry they didn't need anything extra to light them, but we would throw gasoline on them anyway. We lit them up during a moon tide that was particularly low and we found some oysters close to a beach club that we had temporarily invaded. We grabbed a few of them, threw them into the fire and let them pop open.

What advice do you have for someone who has never eaten an oyster?

Anybody who's had sushi or sea urchin is nine-tenths of the way to having an oyster. Or if they've had salmon roe for that matter, but salmon roe is very fishy. A good oyster is sweet, salty, and tastes of the sea. It is an elegant embodiment of a particular area. Each oyster gets its character from the local bay or river where it's found. Most oyster names refer to a fresh-water system.

What tips do you have for serving oysters?

I think oysters are best appreciated raw. That way you can understand their character. Grilling is probably the easiest way to get your toes wet. To grill an oyster, use aluminum foil to prop it up so it's not uneven on the grill and so the liquid doesn't spill out. Put it on the grill flat part up. When grilling oysters, I always have room-temperature butter ready. You can add some lemon, herbs, cayenne pepper, or anything else that you want to the butter. As soon as the top of the oyster pops open grab it off the grill and use a knife to cut the top muscle off. Then eat it with your butter.

Kerry Heffernan is also something of a sustainable fish expert too, in case you're interested.