Shuck U
by Kate Zimmerman for Vancouver Sun: In Good Spirits column

“Oyster Bob” Skinner’s had a strenuous couple of weeks.

First there was the training session with Surreal Gourmet, Bob Blumer. The Food Network TV show host was boning up on oyster shucking at Joe Fortes Seafood and Chop House with resident expert Oyster Bob, for a contest that Blumer was soon to enter in Virginia.

For several days Blumer shucked and shucked, with Oyster Bob playing the attentive professor. Blumer even taped a few intense minutes of his shucking efforts for the pilot of his new TV show, Glutton for Punishment, at Joe Fortes’ oyster bar on Tuesday night. The episode will include his Virginia battle.

“I think he’s going to come in about the three, three-and-a-half minute range,” Skinner predicted.

Next up, Oyster Bob had a taping of the Fox TV series Killer Instinct, where his skill at defrocking shellfish was in demand. Between these two gigs, he had to contend with his daily shucking duties of 800 and upwards oysters. And tonight (Nov. 10), he’ll be one of the house contestants at Joe Fortes’ third annual Slurp & Swirl, a fund-raiser for the Arthritis Research Centre of Canada. Joe Fortes’ management is hoping to drum up $20,000, this being the restaurant’s 20th anniversary. Oyster Bob, a former Ontarian, has been at the oyster bar since day one.

He and three other competitors from Joe Fortes’ staff will be up against some serious outside contenders, though. They’ll hit the restaurant running, from as far away as Toronto and Seattle. Ian Peck is the guy to beat. He’s from Rodney’s Oyster House in Toronto and won Joe Fortes’ contest last year.

The fun starts at 6:30. Guests get to try a variety of wines from California, New Zealand and France, among other countries, and suck back more than a few bivalves alongside other treats. The event usually packs people in to the rafters.

Meanwhile, the winner of the shucking contest will get bragging rights and a trip for two to Whistler on the plush Rocky Mountaineer train. Skinner said, however, “The prize is the prestige, the fun of it all, and seeing how you rate ….”

Among the judges are local media personalities, restaurateur John Bishop, and Canadian actor Leslie Nielsen, best-known for movies like The Naked Gun.

It’s the naked oyster that will fixate Skinner. He’s been slipping these babies the stout knife for 20 years, but there’s more to winning this contest than professional expertise. He has to get himself in what both athletes and restaurant workers like to call “the zone.”

For Oyster Bob, gearing up for competitive oyster-shucking is almost a Zen experience.

“You have to just shut out everything except what you’re doing,” he explained. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

The contest is conducted in heats, two shuckers at a time positioned behind the oyster bar, everyone vying to be fastest. Among the rules is this: when the shucked oysters are presented to the judges for appraisal, each one must have its abductor muscle severed and be sitting pretty on the half-shell. Once his or her final time has been rung in, the competitor cannot have touched his plate to adjust anything. Flaws in presentation such as bits of shell and still-attached oysters will add seconds to his or her official time. So getting each oyster opened and set up right as soon as possible is preferable to prissy fussing afterwards. (Skinner hopes his own time will be 1:35 to 1:40.)

It’s also wise to proceed with care, as cutting oneself on an ultra-sharp knife certainly comes with the territory. Some shuckers wear protective gloves. Others, like Skinner, tape up their fingers like delicate boxers. It took Surreal Gourmet Blumer a few days to realize that taping was valuable, but when showtime rolled around Tuesday every one of his fingertips bore a thimble of white tape.

Tonight’s competitors will all be supplied with Penrose oysters from Desolation Sound. They’re not only tasty but are well-suited to the art of the shucker. What you need, said Skinner, is an oyster with a hard shell, a flat top and a “nice, deep cup.” That way, there’s plenty of room for the knife to slide in and cleanly part the top half of the shell from the precious meat nestling within.

Immersed as he is every day in slithery bivalves, can Oyster Bob still stomach his quarry? Sure thing. He likes ’em as is, no fancy chefwork, washed down with a nice, cold Okanagan Springs Pale Ale.

Tickets to Slurp & Swirl cost $95 and are available at Joe Forte’s,777 Thurlow St. (at Robson), 604-669-1940.

Say “Olé!” to Spanish Splash

Tear your thoughts away from the incessant rain and fixate on sunny Spain on November 16 as Marquis Wine Cellars hosts “Spanish Splash” at the Vancouver Museum.

It’s Marquis’ 20th anniversary this year, and this is the first in a series of celebratory events.

Live flamenco music is sure to warm up this wine-tasting, which features Spanish treats from a number of Vancouver wine agencies. “Tapa-style canapés” will enhance the libations, from an assortment of popular restaurants, among them Bins 941 and 942, Cru Restaurant and Wine Bar, Provence Marinaside and Watermark on Kits Beach.

Best of all, net proceeds from Spanish Splash will benefit the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. The centre provides for the fundamental needs of women and children living in the Downtown East side and works toward positive change.

Tickets to Spanish Splash are $75 and can be purchased at Marquis Wine cellars, 1034 Davie Street, or by calling 604-684-0445.

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