Many people have their own fishmongers and butchers, and now, with the opening of the Taylor Shellfish store at Melrose Market, Seattle now has its own resident oyster guy. Kevin Bartlett, manager of the Seattle store, spent his childhood fishing and eating shellfish out of the Puget Sound. He beat out a likely large group of applicants to head Taylor's Seattle store. Since then, his time at Taylor has been an ongoing education. Whether it's flash cards, challenging inquiries from oyster connoisseurs, or a friendly competition with his assistant manager, Bartlett is always working to sharpen his oyster knowledge as he turns a lifelong hobby into a full-fledged career.
Photo by Tiffany Ran
I actually used to work with Homegrown. I started with Ben [Friedman] and Brad [Gillis] when they first started in Fremont. I worked for them for a few years. Then, when I saw that Taylor [Shellfish] was moving in here and they wanted to bring someone from this area in to manage it, I applied for the job along with probably 500 other people. I did about four of five interviews where [for] some of them, I went to Shelton. They were looking for someone who could manage a store for one, but then, they were also looking for someone that was interested in what Taylor does, which is shellfish in general.
I told them that this was all stuff that I used to do as a hobby. My Dad used to take me out on the Puget Sound fishing, clamming, [and] taking oysters from some of his friends' [shellfish] beds. We've been doing that basically my whole life so basically it was an amazing opportunity to turn a hobby into my career.
Since you weren't working in the shellfish industry beforehand, was it crazy to just be thrown into this?
Absolutely. Even when they hired me, they were all like, "We're hiring you because we know that we can teach you all this stuff." They did kind of a crash course with me in which they took me out to the farms and I got to meet all the farmers. I did a lot of public outreach stuff. I went with Nicole Hopper, who does a lot of the outreach. I'd go to a few junior high schools and talked to the students about shellfish. We did a couple of things where we took first graders out to the farm and let them wander around while we try to teach them not only about what we're doing there, but why it's important to take care of the Puget Sound, the preservation of it. They threw me into a lot of that.
Basically, the biggest help was that I was observing Marco Pinchot, who does the traveling oyster bar. [I was] going with him to these events and listening to him talk to people, just leaning from him. Me and my assistant manager -- we got hired at the same time -- even now, we would challenge each other to who can learn more about a certain species and we would type out notes for each other.
Do return to the oyster farms often?
Since I'm [at the store] 99 percent of my life, [I go] probably once a month. I still go down to Shelton probably once every two months. Any time I hire people and it looks like they're going to work out, I'll make sure I take them down to the farm and let them see how much work that is. Then, I'll take them to Shelton where after stuff gets pulled out from the farms, it gets sent out to Shelton where it gets cleaned and sorted. I love to show them [the process] from beginning to end. When it shows up in a box, it didn't just grow out of a box. Many oysters take four or five oysters to reach this size. It's a lot of blood, sweat, and tears for those oysters to get here, and having every single one of my staff know how important each and every step of this is a very big deal for me.
Have you had any interesting experiences converting oyster virgins?
I'll say the vast majority of oyster virgins that I give oysters to really, really enjoy them. I did work at a winter beer festival that I brought my oyster bar to and we had a line of people the entire time. This young girl came up. I think she was about 22. It was a little bit into the event. I think she had already had quite a few beers. She came up and she wanted to try oysters for the first time. She tried to eat it and then instantly hit the deck. I had these buckets down there for shells, and she just hugged on these buckets for about five minutes. And here's the thing, she stood up [afterwards] and was like, "Hah, alright, let's try that again." She actually ate a second oyster and loved it that second time. That's amazing! I bought her that second one.
On the flip side, do you have those who come in with substantial knowledge about oysters and environmental factors that affect them, and pressing you on those issues?
I can really talk on these topics for a long time, so I love it when people do that. It's also really fun to me. Sometimes you get people who do know a bit about it, and they are almost kind of challenging me. For me it's like, "Yeah, let's do this!"
A little off topic, but can you explain the elaborate tattoos on your arm?
These are Scandinavian art movements from 900 to the 1100, which is the Viking era. What I love about them is that you can see their art change. They would go to English, France, Ireland and their art changes and reflects kind of the areas they go into. It's always kind of the animal and the common struggle. This one (points to his arm) is a sea creature wrestling with these other two sea creatures. This one is of elks that look to be wresting with each other. I basically got that because that is my heritage. When I was 18, was the first time I've ever been to Norway.
What's your favorite oyster and your favorite way of eating oysters?
What I love about oysters is that the flavors really change with time. You'll have oysters where the oyster will be take on different flavors the following week. It ultimately is back and forth between Shigokus and Virginicas. Shigokus are some of the best, but during the winter like around January, the Olympias, which is our native ouster, are amazing.
I like to just eat them raw, just straight up. I grew up barbecuing them. I haven't really eaten a lot of them raw until I started here. I started getting into them just raw, and really getting into them through breaking down the flavor profiles and treating them like wines. That being said, I'm not particularly a huge purist about it to where I'd give other people shit about how to eat them. As long as you're eating oysters, then that's good!
Don't miss Kevin Bartlett's recipe for Taylor Shellfish's melrose mussels in part 2 of this week's Grillaxin.