Chef David Burke who operates David Burke at Orange Lawn in South Orange, NJ, is doing his part to help support New Jersey’s oyster industry. Find out more below.
Fall means cool days, crisp evenings and oyster festivals! Oops, no oyster festivals this season folks, thanks to Covid-19. But wipe those tears away! Visit any of David Burke’s restaurants to get your oyster fix. Top chefs like Burke know that the briny gems of the sea are a luxurious staple on any world-class menu. Super fresh and immediately shucked to order, oysters are the perfect food. They come in their own container, they can be eaten raw, their flavors subtly express the clear ocean waters where they are harvested and they are fun, even sexy, to eat. Turns out they possess many healthful benefits too.
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Burke learned early in his culinary career that the closer the ingredients are to his restaurants the more his dishes stand out. So, when he was approached by the owners of the Barnegat Oyster Collective to sample their oysters, Burke tasted them and said, “Sign me up!” You will find the usual Wellfleet and Blue Point oysters on his menu’s list of oysters, but now you will also find lip-smacking varieties from Barnegat Bay’s oyster beds, such as Laughing Gull and Tucker’s Island and six other varieties, harvested just hours away from any one of Burke’s New Jersey and New York restaurants!
“I want to support local oystermen,” said Burke. “To keep a local industry alive and be proud of what you are serving that’s a good feeling. It’s always preferable to get foods that are harvested the day before as opposed to having them flown, then trucked here. As long as they meet our standards of quality, it’s a no brainer. It’s all about quality, freshness and working with people we know.”
Most of his restaurants feature oysters on the Happy Hour menu, too!
“To have someone with David’s knowledge and star power giving our industry a solid leg to stand on means a lot,” said Scott Lennox co-founder of Barnegat Oyster Collective. “David has been a great help to us even before the pandemic. The restaurant industry is our bread and butter, but when Covid-19 struck we had to pivot and get into people’s kitchens too. David was very helpful by spreading this news via his new social media cooking series with his sidekick puppet “Lefto.”
Lennox and his partner, Matt Gregg, represent a dozen New Jersey oyster farmers. Last year they sold 2 million oysters to 100 regular and part-time customers. This year, due to Covid-19, they will sell only about 60 percent of what they previously sold. In addition to selling to restaurants, Lennox and Gregg have added an online store selling directly to households in ice-packed overnight packages.
Although only a decade old, this is the second calamity their oyster business has weathered. Shortly after they established their oyster beds, Tropical Storm Sandy struck. At that time they were one of the first oyster farmers in New Jersey in decades and the first on the Atlantic coast. They found themselves in the exhausting position of not only farming but also writing grants and educating the general public and the government. Lennox and Gregg realized that the industry could be better served and more successful if they took their accumulated knowledge about red tape and permits and act as a distribution arm and an advocacy to oyster farmers. So, they loaned their state leases to interested oystermen and the Barnegat Oyster Collective was formed.
It takes 16 months to grow oysters. They are highly perishable and their availability is subject to a plethora of difficulties that farmers face throughout the seasons, such as inclement weather, predators, tides, personal hardships and the list goes on. But New Jersey offers the perfect location for farming oysters due to its barrier islands with bays that have numerous fresh water tributaries flowing into them. This creates oysters with many diverse flavors.
“Oyster farming is a daunting but noble task,” said Lennox. “It’s a tough business!”
While New Jersey oysters maybe new to the marketplace, they are not new to Garden State’s natural and native food system. Indeed, the native Americans fished the bountiful waters and shorelines showing their fondness for clams and oysters with the many mounds of oyster and clam shells discovered along the shorelines during excavations.
And oysters are good for you too. An article on the website of the highly regarded Cleveland Clinic, states that oysters are low-cal, high in protein, rich in key nutrients such as Vitamin D, Vitamin B-12, Copper, Iron, and Zinc – an important mineral for sexual health and perhaps where oysters got their reputation as an aphrodisiac.
So although there are no oyster festivals scheduled, there are options for oyster lovers – either make a reservation at a David Burke restaurant or order them online from Barnegat Oyster Collective and have them shipped directly to your home. They overnight oysters and fun seafood packages all over the country for people looking to have a bit of the Jersey Shore year round.
And during his quarantine cooking video sessions, the innovative Burke and his puppet sous chef “Lefto” found a new, easy, foolproof way of opening the nearly indestructible oyster shells. Microwave them for 45-60 seconds and the hinge will loosen enough to open them with a butter knife. The process keeps the oysters raw so you can still savor the delicious briny liquor inside without maiming a digit or two.