Photography by Gary Parker
& Caroline Van T Hoff
Illustration by Matt Dampney
Brent Petkau believes humanity can learn a lot from the oyster, viewing this bivalve beauty as a vehicle for social change. By fulfilling the manifesto of his oyster revolution, Brent leads us towards a brighter future, one oyster at a time.
[I]t’s not everyday where the local oyster supplier has created such a name for himself that he has an almost rock star status. But over the last 16 years, the charismatic Brent Petkau, aka ‘The Oyster Man’ has created an oyster-eating culture in the Southern Interior of British Columbia, where he has locals quite literally eating freshly shucked oysters from his hands. However, it’s not only overall experience he provides to his customers that is noteworthy, but it’s his mission to ignite a culinary revolution that makes him a standout oyster man.
It’s Friday morning in beautiful Nelson, a mountain town located along the west arm of the Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, Canada. We’ve arrived at a car park that has been transformed into the ‘Oyster Oasis’ where Brent will spend the day selling his shellfish that arrived in town the night before. When we ask how he’s going, he replies with a warm smile and genuine sincerity, “I couldn’t be happier.” Being the resident oyster man is what makes Brent’s heart sing and if people lived with the joie de vivre that he exemplifies, the world just may be a better place.
While there are some people who are adamant seafood shouldn’t be consumed so far inland, Brent challenges that notion by supplying the town with 4000 oysters and 500 pounds of mussels and clams each month. Despite traveling over 900km from Cortes Island to Nelson, the freshness of his shellfish is unparalleled by anything you will find in a supermarket and he comments, “I have to come up with a superlative that is better than fresh and it’s probably orgasmic.”
He takes a shucking knife and with consummate care, shucks one of his famous ‘Royal Courtesans’ for us to try. He looks lovingly at the oyster and says, “Look at that, I can’t improve on this. This is perfection.” Brent explains that this winter was a particularly good one, with favourable conditions that yielded this ‘perfection’ he speaks of. He points out the characteristics of a good oyster—a strong adductor muscle, a heart that shows it has been circulating lots of meat and plenty of liquor that signifies ultimate freshness. He marvels, “What I love is just a second ago, it was alive. It would stay living for 3 weeks, it’s breathing, it’s transpiring. To have that kind of life force that is so simple, so unadulterated is truly a gift.” I put the oyster to my mouth and let myself be whisked away by its perfection.
Throngs of people start to arrive and exit excitedly from their cars, eagerly making their way to Brent’s makeshift stall. You can just see people are hanging to get their monthly oyster fix, as well as catch up with Brent, who provides an experience that is incomparable to anything you’d encounter at a supermarket.
“Anything in life that is worth doing, when you give it the extra touch and you give it the love, something very positive comes out of it. The oyster is all about the extra touch.”
It’s amazing to see how one man can transform a car park into a hive of activity, and Brent says, “If it weren’t for Nelson, I wouldn’t be an oyster man.” Despite a round-trip of over 1800km and having to wear the cost of fuel and 3 ferries each way, Brent continues to do the monthly journey out to Cortes Island because he thrives in Nelson, a town that has shown him support over the years and understands what is required to ensure the future of a small-scale oyster farmer like himself. “I don’t think you can find many communities as dynamic as this one” he comments. You only need to walk down to the local produce stores to see how the ‘buy local’ movement is a priority to a vast majority of Nelsonites, which is why the locals appreciate the lengths that Brent goes to not only to provide exceptional shellfish, but to encourage people to reconnect with where there food is coming from, something that has been lost over the years.
In the past, Brent supplied oysters to over 40 restaurants on a weekly basis, but he couldn’t compete with supermarkets that drove the prices down. On Cortes Island, his oysters would sell for about 18c, whereas he is able to sell them for just over a dollar in Nelson. “If it weren’t for Nelson where people pay a fair dollar, I couldn’t survive.” While most people think of sustainability in terms of environment, it’s the very crucial aspect of economics that is often overlooked and Brent seeks to point out this tangent of sustainability. “Unfortunately, the economic model for everything is the bottom line. It’s so complex and the heart of it is, if everybody isn’t paid a living wage that has dignity, then what you’ve got is a recipe for unsustainability. You’ll just fish the oceans out, that’s why I love my being an oyster man here and charging premium prices, because when you stand behind your product and you know what you’re talking about, it’s worth every penny.”
The quality of Brent’s highly sought after ‘Royal Courtesans’ (an oyster he boasts as the sexiest growing oyster in the world) is due to his artisanal oyster farming techniques that require the extra touch. “Anything in life that is worth doing, when you give it the extra touch and you give it the love, something very positive comes out of it. The oyster is all about the extra touch.”
One thing that distinguishes Brent apart from the rest is that most oyster farms use automated tools that knock the shell off, thereby mechanically altering the oysters, whereas Brent’s oysters are beach hardened and their natural growth is free from interference. “What I love about all this extra shell growth, there’s lots of room for liquor,” he comments. Brent loves to feel the oyster’s textures beneath his fingers and does not work with gloves, giving him an even closer connection with his work.
It’s due to this symbiotic relationship with the ocean that Brent attaches himself to mariculture as opposed to aquaculture and explains the distinction between the two. “Mariculture is working with the water and working with it almost in the sense of what permaculture is about.” Aquaculture means you feed the seafood (often with fishmeal made of ground anchovy pellets that come from Asia), treat with antibiotics and essentially change the natural ecosystem, whereas the food for Brent’s millions of oysters, mussels and clams is derived solely from what the ocean provides and his shellfish grow as a result of a function of photosynthesis, where they feed on the plankton in the water. “My oyster beds have millions of oysters on them, what other seafood now can you have that sort of abundance?” Brent’s sustainable practices seek to ensure the longevity of his shellfish for future generations. Unlike larger scale fisheries and oyster farms that pluck seafood from the ocean before optimum growth is achieved, Brent only collects and sells shellfish when its ideal size and quality has been reached, which allows them to reproduce and continue to flourish. Brent sees a strong future for the oyster, as fossils dating back millions of years already exemplify the resilience of this species. “They’ve already bounced back after years of abuse. We have a second chance, a chance to do it right the second time around and my dream is that stocks will surpass the high levels from the past.”
It’s difficult to say what part of the gig Brent loves most; the hands-on labour of oyster ranching, being the embodiment of his manifesto or interacting with his loyal customers. We had the privilege of seeing Brent at Bibo restaurant, where he sets up his oyster shucking station behind the bar and creates ambience and a memorable dining experience as he shucks and prepares the platters of oysters he personally presents to the guests. He is truly in his element and says, “I would pay to do this…it’s just glory. I wish all oyster farmers got to experience this.”
“I’ve always been attracted to the fact that there’s not a lot of money to be made…You don’t get into this work if that’s what you’re trying to achieve.”
But perhaps it’s the way that oysters create memories that Brent gravitates towards most. After all, it was essentially after experiencing his first oyster whilst traveling in New Zealand in late 1979 that sparked his eternal love affair with the oyster. “Oysters are a social food that bring people together, you don’t eat them alone. When you’ve had a great oyster, it should take you somewhere, it should spark your imagination.”
The oyster reflects a person’s sense of self respect and integrity and Brent comments, “I’m a big believer that you are what you eat, and when you become a society that doesn’t give a fuck, that’s what you’re going to become.” The oyster inspires people to have a meaningful connection with not only for what they put into their body, but engages people to ask the question of where it comes from, which are both important components in Brent’s desire for people to be passionate about food and life.
It’s refreshing to see someone go against the grain of the tendency to seek instant gratification, in which the ‘quick and easy’ route and getting rich quick are most appealing. “The work keeps me honest. That’s what I love about my fellow oyster farmers. Like surfers, like mountaineers, there’s a quality…we’re up first thing in the morning, self- motivated, not looking for the easy way out.” Brent favours the labour of love that goes into cultivating oysters and explains that considering it takes around 3 years to produce one crop of oysters, there is no money to be made in this industry. “I’ve always been attracted to the fact that there’s not a lot of money to be made. I don’t know anybody who’s gotten fat off them, but I can show you the crab fishermen, the pot growers, this whole collection of people who’ve made so much money.”
“There’s nobody in the oyster business who can say that’s what attracts them. You don’t get into this work if that’s what you’re trying to achieve.”
For Brent, oyster ranching is truly all about the love. “That’s another question I don’t think enough people ask, where’s the love? You go to the supermarket, the people handling the fresh produce don’t have love for that product, it’s strictly units.” You only need to hear Brent talk speak to realise the amount of love and respect that goes into the ranching of his shellfish and when he handles his precious oysters, he treats each one with the care you would bestow upon a loved one. Each time he shucks and presents one, he holds it out lovingly like a gift, which is an exchange you’ll never encounter at a supermarket.
When the time is right and Brent decides to retire from oyster ranching, he wants to bequeath Nelson with his oyster farm. “I’m pretty big on this town having this oyster farm, my lease, that which I own.” Concordant with his mission for communities to reclaim ownership of local food systems, the idea of passing on his oyster farm is a legacy he wishes to leave behind. “My dream is to have the city into the future, to have a direct link to the clam and oyster beds. I think it’s essential, I think every town should have its own winery, its own brewery, its own coffee roaster.” He says he doesn’t need to have his name attached, but leaving behind a culture of an oyster-loving community that can be self-reliant would be enough for Brent to know he had fulfilled his mission.
As he continues to weave the intentions of his manifesto into his daily living and inspiring others to follow suit, I imagine he’ll continue to create memories in his role as the beloved Oyster Man, a role I can see him thriving in for years to come.
“My love of being an oyster man, it’s actually got a much higher purpose, it’s who I have to be. I want to have dignity, I want to have my own integrity, self-respect and that all feeds into growing a great oyster and having people here enjoy them.”