October 5, 2015
As Oyster Cook-Off fans quickly learn, there are many ways to prepare the perfect oyster, Cajun, steamed, bacon-wrapped, layered in a taco, etc. But for Chattanooga chef Erik Niel, less is almost always more.
“My go-to is to crack ‘em open and eat ‘em,” said the Louisiana native from his Easy Bistro & Bar. “I like them fresh. I’m always going to go raw first.”
Thanks to the growing popularity of farmed oysters, Niel said the best tasting oysters are right here in the south, no cocktail sauce necessary.
“I grew up eating them like everybody else with a saltine cracker, hot sauce,
squeeze of lemon. Now they’re so good, you don’t even need that.”
Niel thinks the contributions in aquaculture over the past 10-15 years have been the best news for oysters since before commercial harvesting. “We finally started using technology to help us create what Old Timers already knew, certain places at certain times of the year grew oysters with a certain taste. Now we can use some of these new techniques to really highlight those different tastes.”
Niel features a variety of oyster preparations at Easy Bistro, not just serving them raw, and he likes to use three southern species the most. “My top three are Bama Beauties from Bayou Le Batre, Murder Points from south of Mobile Bay and Apalachicolas, when they are available of course.”
Niel’s appreciation for artisan oysters is not just good for his customers but he thinks it’s giving a leg up to the whole industry. “Regulations now help the oystermen control the growth of the oysters so much better and that allows them to create a more premium product with better quality. Plus it helps them make a little more money in the process and that helps the whole cycle continue. That job is hard work.”
When asked how to showcase the tastiness of a raw oyster to a first-timer Niel again relies on a minimal approach. “As a chef we really need to view this as an opportunity to open someone’s palate to one of the real delicacies on the planet. I would say choose a smaller, fresh oyster, serve it perfectly chilled and encourage the person to sip the juice as they eat it. If it’s a good oyster, in season and fresh, it’s going to be the first of many for most people.”
Niel and his wife are also the owners of Main Street Meats a charcuterie and butchery in Chattanooga where chef is hoping to get some inspiration for his 2015 Oyster Cook-Off entry. “I’m thinking a little spicy Coppa (think Prosciutto) as a topper . . . we’ll see.”
Taste Chef Niel’s final oyster recipe in person at the Hangout Oyster Cook-Off on Saturday, November 7, along with samples from more than 150 unique oyster recipes s by getting your ticket here.