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One on One: William 'Chopper' Young
World champion oyster shucker, Wellfleet, Mass.
By James Wright
April 01, 2009
"You'd think it'd be cutthroat because we're all after the same carrot. But they're all good people, down-to-earth folks. I haven't met many people I haven't like in the whole shucking circuit."
Shucking an oyster is equal parts art and science. For seafood fanatics, there are few more satisfying feelings than working a wide-handled knife through the crease of an oyster's shell and snapping open the watertight seal that keeps the filter-feeding mollusk safe and snug. To master this hazardous task and do it cleanly and repeatedly takes a lot of practice; to do it competitively takes a special kind of talent.
William Young is the undisputed world champion oyster shucker, the first American in 32 years to stake such a claim. The self-employed Wellfleet, Mass., fisherman earned the title last October at the International Oyster Opening Championship in Galway, Ireland, after besting the U.S. competition to earn the chance to compete on the grandest stage available. And since he successfully defended his national championship title last fall, he'll return to Ireland again this year to take on the world's best. Last month he won the oyster shucking competition at the International Boston Seafood Show for the third year in a row. Whatever competition Young is in - and he's shucked everywhere - he is known by one name: "Chopper."
The competitive oyster shucking community is full of colorful characters with unusual nicknames but is a tightly knit group, Young says. During a win at the Mohegan Sun Oyster Open in January, Young shared $1,000 of his prize winnings with his fellow competitors.
"A lot of people are having a hard time right now and they worked hard and spent a lot of money to be there. They're awesome shuckers and they deserve it," he says.
Young, 42, was born in Bar Harbor, Maine, and has been around seafood all his life. The son of a Provincetown, Mass., lobsterman, Young grew up in Seal Cove, Maine, where he dug for clams with his uncle and stepfather. At age 15, he moved to Cape Cod, a place he's called home ever since. "I'm what 'Fleetians call a 'wash ashore,'" quips Young, who adds that when he's not shucking oysters competitively, he's fishing for them.
I talked with Chopper in early February, shortly after he and girlfriend Allison welcomed the arrival of their first born, William Elijah, just seven weeks prior.
WRIGHT: When did you start competitive shucking, and why?
YOUNG : I think it was 2002 or 2003. I first saw a contest at an oyster festival in Wellfleet called Bygone Days. It wasn't a serious competition. A local woman would always win it, and I thought I could do it.
Where did you hone your skill?
On the tailgate of my truck, for the most part. When I moved to the Cape and started oystering, all the good markets for half shells were taken and the new guy always has to develop his own market. So I had to shuck them myself. I was doing a lot of cutting to make ends meet. More cutting made me better.
I never was a raw bar guy. I would shuck the oysters I caught for the meat market - fried oysters by the gallon.
How often do you compete
and how much can
you earn in these contests?
I do about six to eight competitions a year. Last year I made more than $9,000 in prize money. I also have sponsors. Evinrude gave me a motor at cost. The Wellfleet OysterFest gave me money so my family could travel with me to Ireland. I get a lot of help. American Mussel Harvesters [in North Kingstown, R.I.] helps me out and they do a lot for the contests. I also sell them some stuff - they're a great company and a big supplier. So are the Summer Shack people, Jasper White's place.
Is there a lot of
camaraderie among shuckers?
You'd think it'd be cutthroat because we're all after the same carrot. But they're all good people, down-to-earth folks. I haven't met many people I haven't liked in the whole shucking circuit.
Do you farm oysters as well?
We have farmed in the past and we're going to do it this year. We had a couple of bad years, but the wild ones were kicking pretty good. Now the wild are fizzling out a bit, so we have some seed and spats. This year I'm looking forward to getting those going.
It's tough. There are so many things that can go wrong. We lost more than a million oysters a few years ago. They just decided to stop living. There was a blight of dermo that wiped them out. I think it was Mother Nature's way of saying, "Sorry boys, not this time."
What variety of oyster is the easiest to shuck? The hardest?
I like the Michael Kelly oysters (Editor's note: the European oyster, Ostrea edulis). He's the guy who owns the big oyster farm that produces the ones they use for the world championship in Ireland.
The hardest are the ones from Seattle, the gigas. The shells are hard to get into. I like to shuck from the side. But with those, it's like shucking a piece of baklava - the shells fall apart. You don't know where to put the knife. They are challenging for me.
competitions have you won?
I haven't kept count, but quite a few; probably 20 or so.
Ever cut or hurt
yourself while shucking?
Everybody has, but I don't do it often. The shells are like razors. I wear gloves during competitions; at least 90 percent of competitors do.
Do you have a favorite oyster knife?
I got my baby, sort of my own brand. It's a modified Dexter Russell. I'd tell you more, but trade secrets are involved. It's well worked. She's thin and delicate. She's a very important family member.
Do you like to eat oysters?
I do. I like them baked.
What about raw oysters?
Not so much.
I've been to a couple of your
competitions; it gets pretty
heated out there. How bad
do you guys want it?
I'm a competitive person and strive to be the best. But it's never confrontational. We're all friends.
It seems like you always win!
Well, once in a while you lose. The bottom line is it's oyster shucking and you don't always win. Sometimes you get some bad ones, ones that crumble.
So, where did you get the nickname?
My grandfather. I had chubby cheeks as a kid.
Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at email@example.com