After two decades of practice, oyster shucking for Lake County resident Brian Clark is as natural as breathing.
As the manager of his family’s restaurant, The Oyster Troff in Eustis, Clark spends hours prying open shells with his 3-inch oyster knife — a skill that clinched him the U.S. National Oyster Shucking Champion title at the October competition in Maryland.
“You’re trying to open as fast as you can as clean as you can,” said Clark, whose older brother, Chris, is also a master oyster shucker. “It’s basically an art — you want it to be beautiful because it is.”
Clark, 32, began honing his shucking skills around the age of 12 when an employee at his family’s restaurant quit, so his parents put him and Chris to work.
Chris, 36, started competitive shucking first about five years ago around the time he branched off on his own to open Tiki West Raw Bar and Grill in Tavares. Brian entered the competitive circuit two years later.
“For us, it’s about taking pride in what you do, making sure they’re [oysters] presentable and clean — that’s pretty much what the contests are for,” said Chris, who is raising two daughters with his wife, Katie.
The brothers both competed overseas in May — shucking along the Great Wall of the China — and Brian nabbed fourth place at the Shuck Off China World Cup.
Brian's championship win — while setting a new record by shucking two dozen oysters in 1 minute, 58.64 seconds — earned him a spot representing the U.S. at the Galway Oyster & Seafood Festival in September.
Before a competition, Brian said clears his head by putting headphones on and listening to hip hop music.
When the timer starts, the crowd noise fades to the background of his mind as he holds the oyster in his left, gloved hand, slipping the paring knife into the shell’s hinge and fluidly twisting the mollusk open.
Using his right index finger, he gently smooths the abductor muscle in place to ensure a flawless presentation before the oyster is arranged on the tray.
“People think it’s just shucking, but the fastest person doesn’t always win,” Brian said. “One penalty can ruin the whole competition.”
Brian’s wife, Jessica, and their four children have been cheering on his quick rise to the top of the shucking ranks.
The couple’s 6-year-old son Sawyer has dabbled in oyster shucking under Brian’s watch and Lacy, 10, has shown an affinity for the skill — an interest Brian encourages.
“It’s great — there needs to be more women in the field to give men a run for their money,” Brian said.
Chris, who took second place in a Canadian competition this year and finished fourth in the 2017 U.S. national competition, said he’s looking to up his game next year — and maybe edge out Brian — by carving out more time to practice shucking.
“When it’s your brother, you’re always competing against him a little bit,” Chris said. “We still root for each other but at the same time, we both want to win.”
Brian is already immersed in training for what is widely considered to be the Olympics of oyster shucking in Ireland.
He invested $200 to buy a used double-edge, Swedish-made knife and is regularly getting shipments from Maine of Belons — European flat oysters — for practice runs.
Both brothers said they’re not in the competitions to get rich. Even with local sponsors, the prize money often isn’t enough to make a hefty profit after travel expenses.
But for Brian, who got a tattoo of a half shell and his trusty paring knife on his left forearm after taking home the top prize in New Orleans last year, competitive oyster shucking is an integral part of his life.
“Some of these contests, it’s only one run and [then] done,” Brian said. “I’m going all the way to Ireland to shuck 30 oysters.”
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