Man vs. mollusk: Vegas chefs do battle at Shuck and Swallow

First Food & Bar’s Jacob Mual shucks while swallowing partner Rob Ryan demands more oysters during the first Las Vegas Shuck and Swallow oyster-eating competition on August 24, 2009.
Photo: Sarah Feldberg

Epic moments of athletic achievement are often defined by overcoming seemingly impossible obstacles. In 1996, Kerri Strug vaulted for Olympic gold with a bad ankle sprain. In 2004, Red Sox pitcher Curt Shilling won Game 6 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees with an ankle injury that caused the now-famous “bloody sock.” And on August 24, First Food & Bar staffers Robert Ryan and Jacob Mual sustained scrapes, cuts and torn lips on their way to shelling and ingesting an incredible 94 oysters in 10 minutes for top prize in the first Shuck and Swallow oyster-eating competition in Las Vegas.

Shuck & Swallow

A mountain of oysters and ice awaits the competitors at First Food & Bar.

Shuck and Swallow – the brainchild of Santa Monica Seafood Company, which provides seafood for many local restaurants – is a battle of dexterity and determination that pits man against mollusk for 10 minutes of shucking and slurping madness. For Las Vegas’ first crack at the competition this past Monday, pairs of chefs from 12 local restaurants stepped up to the cutting board to see who could shuck and swallow as many oysters as possible in the allotted time.

Anyone who’s ever taken knife to oyster in the hopes of scoring a snack, knows that shucking a few, let alone as many as possible for 10 minutes straight, is no easy task.

“[Oysters] have their skeleton on the outside and the muscle is on the inside,” explained Paddy Glennon from Santa Monica Seafood, which supplied the mountain of oysters for the event. “They have a valve that needs to be popped to get that thing to open. Once the oyster’s open, they loosen the meat and serve it up.”

While the process can be downright dangerous with a novice wielding the shucking knife, it gets easier with practice. Paired with a swallower who can ignore all bodily cues to stop stuffing raw seafood into their mouth, a shucker can work through more than 100 oysters during the 10-minute competition. “Right now the standing record is at 126 oysters,” Glennon said.

That total proved too much for the participating chefs from restaurants like Andre’s, Carnevino, Fiamma, SushiSamba and Dos Caminos who had to down the slimy mollusks straight from the shell.

The carnage: A few of the 94 oyster shells that gave Mual and Ryan the victory on August 24.

“Traditionally oysters are served with accouterments, mignonette, Tabasco sauce, lemon, etc.,” Glennon explained. “This is just raw power eating oysters. If you like Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog eating contest, this is the same thing. This is competition eating at its finest.”

What would an oyster-eating competition be without restaurant industry employees yelling sexual innuendos at their fellow chefs?

Rob Ryan and Jacob Mual of First Food and Bar decided an intimate approach was their best strategy towards securing the trophy and accompanying bragging rights.

“I’ve been shucking oysters all day,” said team swallower Ryan, who was outfitted with goggles and gloves before the race began. “I’ve been feeling the oyster, being with the oyster, knowing their personalities, what they want, what they need, what they want to see.”

Regardless of what the oysters wanted, needed and hoped to see, they ended up in Ryan’s stomach. Ninety-four of them, and more than enough for the focused pair to beat runners up from Enoteca San Marco by about 20 oysters.

With bloodied knuckles and big smiles the champions chalked up their win not to hard work, determination or a love of seafood, but to Ryan’s open throat. And no gag reflex. To celebrate the victory, Ryan said he’d be doing something almost unthinkable after the oyster onslaught.

“Work,” he laughed. “I have to open more oysters on the back station.”

Photo of Sarah Feldberg

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