Oct 9, 2006

Oyster Shucking Champion

Published October 8 2006
NORWALK -- Patrons at Valencia Luncheria can eat the breakfast -- and lunch and dinner -- of a champion.Chef Luis Chavez won the fourth annual professional oyster-shucking competition last weekend at the Grand Central Oyster Bar & Restaurant in Manhattan, wresting the title from a three-time winner who works at the historic establishment.

Chavez improved upon his second-place finish last year and prevented a four-peat by besting the defending champion in the final round."It felt really good," Chavez said last week at Valencia. "I was surprised . . . but I guess the best oysters won."Besides quantity -- Chavez estimates he opened oysters at a rate of 10 per minute during the Sept. 30 tilt -- presentation matters on the professional shucking circuit, where he is a veteran.Chavez took home $1,000 for his performance at Grand Central, where competitors had a specified amount of time to open as many oysters as possible, remove the top shell, loosen the flesh and arrange the finished product on a tray.The taste of victory wasn't the first for Chavez, a 31-year-old Norwalk resident whose first shucking contest was several years ago at the Norwalk Seaport Association Oyster Festival.Chavez will soon don his metal chain-link glove and take his oyster knife to face the nation's best shuckers at a Maryland competition he's entered twice before.Chavez's day job is part-owner of Valencia, an award-winning Main Street restaurant featuring Venezuelan cuisine.He is known as "champ" around the eatery since last weekend's win, chef-owner Michael Young said."I feel very good about . . . our company, and I feel good about being his business partner and knowing that when I'm not here, the champ is," Young said.One of the chefs likes to be at the restaurant at all times, so Young didn't attend the Grand Central contest. But he was among a large contingent of supporters who watched Chavez take third place and a $500 purse a month ago at the Mohegan Sun Oyster Open in Mystic.A Cape Cod man known as "The Chopper" won the competition, part of the Taste of Mystic festival, Chavez said.He said he knows everyone in the Northeast on the professional oyster-shucking circuit.The 1993 Brien McMahon High School graduate, a native of El Salvador, started shucking oysters at the now-defunct Chart House restaurant in Greenwich. He used to time himself."Now it's just natural for me to do . . . this type of thing," he said.Chavez took the top spot at Norwalk's Oyster Festival in 2002 and 2003. He went on to compete in 2003 and 2004 at the nationals at the annual St. Mary's County Oyster Festival in Maryland.Chavez said success on the circuit takes strength and a delicate touch, since penalties are assessed for fouls such as presenting an oyster on a broken shell or with grit, blood or another foreign substance on the flesh.He flexes his shucking chops at Valencia's catering events, but oysters aren't always on the menu at the restaurant. And he doesn't prepare for competitions."No, it's just natural. I don't practice," Chavez said with a laugh. "That's the truth."
Copyright © 2006, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.


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