084 – Travis Croxton, Rappahannock Oyster Company
Bay Work. With Oysters. Welcome to my conversation with Travis Croxton of Rappahannock Oyster Company, who, along with brother Ryan, has helped bring the long and storied tradition of Virginia Chesapeake Bay oysters back into the spotlight. From one small grill at Merroir in Topping, Virginia these brothers have built a restaurant empire, one that’s growing all the time. From RockSalt in Charlottesville to their newest addition Rapp Session in Richmond, Rappahannock Oyster now has eight restaurants, including one in Los Angeles that opens in November. World domination is officially underway.
The Croxtons are 4th-generation oyster farmers, going back to the 1800’s. The story of his family’s agricultural origins was fascinating and made me grateful these two brothers are carrying on such an important legacy. Their logo was created using the signature of one of their ancestors and the paperwork for the land grant for the oyster farm hangs in one of their restaurants. A terrific idea, including story into your business. What advice does he have for new business owners? Listen to learn more!
For decades the Virginia oyster was nothing but a myth. Overfishing and bad farming practices had driven them almost to extinction. In New York they are extinct. Those fancy New York Blue Points? They come from Virginia and have since the 1800’s. Luckily, good farming practices have brought these beauties back and it’s a good thing. Oysters are excellent filters. Farming them keeps sediment in place and creates a biodiverse ecosystem. They act as an environmental cornerstone much like coral reefs. When oysters were overfished the bay became incredibly polluted with dead zones where the sun couldn’t penetrate which meant many fish died. Today, if you visit the Croxton’s farm, the water is so clear you can see straight to the bottom.
“I tell people, we have the cleanest waters in the country, especially the Rappahannock. There’s no town, no city on it, it’s all forested.”
A working oyster farm like Rappahannock includes long lines, lead lines, and underwater cages, each one holding about 2,000 adult oysters, which mature in about 18 months to two years. A tumbling process hardens the shell and makes the cup deeper for a meatier oyster. Once mature, oysters are brought in for husbandry, separation into size and class. Other farms use floating cages but the Croxtons are cognizant of homeowners who’d rather not have their bucolic view of “The Rivah” spoiled. This farm not only produces a delicious product but provides jobs to folks in an area that desperately needs them.
On farming: “We’re doing it in rural, economically challenged areas…just recently it dawned on us that we’re actually creating a lot of jobs and good work tracks for people…if they show up on time for a year or so we put them on salary and give them benefits, and give them a career path. It’s not just food benefits, and health benefits to the Chesapeake but the local economy…A lot of kids go to college and never come back…we’re trying to reverse that trend.”
Oysters have their own Merrior and Rapphannock’s are no exception. The minerality of river flows down from the Blue Ridge add taste, as does the salinity of the ocean. The type of algae they eat affects taste. All of this impacts flavor and the water conditions impact the hardness of the shell and the way it’s shaped. Like wine, there isn’t just one oyster variety. Chincoteague oysters are going to taste dramatically different from river oysters because of merroir. Dramatically different flavor profiles they can showcase to chefs interested in their product.
On their beginnings, “We need to not only resurrect our Rappahannock farm, but we need to showcase a couple of other (oyster) locations and show the world that we are the Napa Valley of oysters.”
The story of how they got chefs interested is downright mythic. They looked up the best restaurant in New York according to Zagat, and arrived at Le Benardin with a cooler between them. Chef Eric Ripert became an instant fan and began serving Rappahannock oysters in his restaurant.
“We had our first sales in the #1 restaurant in the country at the time. And we had no idea what we were doing…to this day chefs like Jen Carroll tell us, ‘I remember when you guys walked into our kitchen. You guys were dumbasses!’ We didn’t even know how to shuck oysters back then.”
Chefs have been key to getting the word out. Each chef at every Rappahannock Oyster Company restaurant is so talented, many nationally renowned, and all of them put their own special twist on how they prepare these beauties. If you’ve had the Lambs and Clams at RockSalt or the Oyster Bourride at Rapphannock, you certainly know what I’m talking about.
How can you shuck an oyster without cutting off a finger? What’s the best way to store them? What is a spat? How do oysters spawn? Has consumption changed over the centuries? Are oyster farms affected by weather? Hurricanes? What are the origins of their famous Lambs and Clams? Did you know each restaurant makes this dish but does it a little differently? All the more reason to visit every restaurant in the Croxton kingdom.
The next time you travel down to “The Rivah” and take in its crystal clear beauty, thank an oyster. Then get yourself to one of the Croxton restaurants. You can enjoy oysters there and even pick some up to take home! They also sell them on their website. Whether they’re raw, roasted, grilled, steamed, fried, or in a stew, it’s good stuff. This episode made me SO hungry! Cheers!
SHOW NOTES – Links to resources talked about during the podcast:
- Bashir Khelafa – The owner of Bashir’s Taverna is in dire need. Please give early and often.
- Fire, Flour Fork – I will be moderating a panel on Women in Food at this event next week, hopefully interviewing Gabrielle Hamilton as well, fingers crossed. Get your tickets now!
- Caromont Farm Dinner – This event was stupendous. I will be airing a special episode profiling it Thanksgiving Day. How do you know it’s Thanksgiving in Charlottesville? Record a voice memo with your name, where you’re from, and why you know it’s Thanksgiving. Mail it to me and you just might hear yourself on the podcast!
- Help Scotty Recover – My best friend has Stage 3B colon cancer. Bills are piling up. He can’t work. Can you help? Share! Donate! No amount is too small. Thank you and BIG LOVE to everyone who donated and shared the Big Love Bake Sale and Big Love Birthday!
- Subscribe to This Podcast. Stay Edacious! – Come on, after this episode? You know you want to. Subscribers get new episodes instantly, while non-subscribers have to wait a few hours or days depending on the iTunes gods. Never miss a chance to be edacious!
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