Chefs have a way of huddling together, hunching their shoulders and being so focussed that outside this circle of trust, nothing matters. This moment is distilled from years of experience, an intense desire to create and inspire.
In front of me, chefs are huddles. And in the nearby marquee arranged over twenty tables, dishes of oysters lie hidden under white tablecloths and unconsciously styled alongside oyster shells, fresh herbs, squeezy bottles of food emulsions, powders and sauces, and other display paraphernalia.
No show for nerves
Tables are numbered. It’s competition time at the fifth annual Danish Oyster Festival, and if contestants are nervous, it’s not showing. They move easily between tables, exchanging greetings and complements. Many had been to a dinner the previous evening and if they had partied late into night – that wasn’t showing either.
The event was held in late 2021 on Denmark’s Rømo island, in the southwest of the country and organised by Povl Lønberg, oyster lover, organiser and marketing expert.
Each chef and their team had a table and a little space to create examples of their competition entries, offering them to those who had made the pilgrimage to the festival. The oyster dishes had to fit into one half shell and be reproducible in significant numbers for hungry and curious guests.
Cross border competition
Chefs and their restaurants from across Denmark, Germany and Belgium had arrived to challenge for the coveted title Oyster Chef of the Year 2021.
As the morning ticked by and hum of expectation gradually grew quiet, it was time for Table 1 to present five identical dishes to the judges and one to the respected food writer Andrea Petrini to taste, comment upon and for the judges to score marks.
They offered up to the judges and paying guests served the delicacy as a savoury bite for starters and main course and dessert, yes for the pudding, the sweet course.
For the 2021 Oyster Chef of the Year 23 participants from Belgium, Germany and Denmark competed across three categories: The Salt Kitchen, The Sweet Kitchen and Oysters & Sandwiches. In exchange for a blue token (€4.50) each table offered visitors an identical tasted everything from oyster shot dogs to oyster ice cream and oyster butter as well as oysters with lamb, caramel or venison.
Here’s the results and some fabulous images photographed by Soeren Gammelmark, Danmarks Østersfestival, and myself.
The Salt Kitchen
Oyster Chef of the Year is the Danish chef Nicolaj Møller from Treetop restaurant. Nicolaj also collected the priced for the best recipe in the Salt Kitchen category and, clutching his two awards, told me: “I worked really hard to win this. It was important to create a wining dish and one we can offer in our restaurant. My team and I are really happy to win.”
This year’s Østerskok (the top prize) and winner in Det Salte Køkken category (The Salt Kitchen) Nicolaj Møller from Treetop wowed the judges with his oyster signature dish: Oysters with cucumber, dill and horseradish topped with an wasabi ice cream.
The Sweet Kitchen
Magnus Carlsen Wins
Served a dish with oyster ice cream, chocolate and caramel.
Jakob Spolum Winner of Oysters & Sandwiches
Seafood Salad à la Waldorf.
Martin Peter Leth Winner of the Sustainability Award
Oysters with dried lamb hearts, boiled shrimp and dill mayonnaise.
Jonas Harboe. Winner of the Wildcard Prize.
Jonas was entered by the organisers at the last minute and won with an enchanting dish called ‘Pink Oyster’.
Pickled rose hips from Bornholm, grapefruit and grapefruit, Bornholm rapeseed oil and fermented unripe mulberries.
Nicolas Min Jørgensen
Oysters, tomato ‘tempi’ and cool vegetable juice. Three small chunks that sum up an entire season.
Emilie Qvist Kjærgaard and Simon Basballe
Tailwind & Lust
Poached oysters in lamb fat from Varde Ådal, gray horseradish oil, whiskey from Copenhagen distillery, smoked cream with Danish dashi and wild Japanese quinces.
Oysters with pickled rose hips, beach herbs, satay sauce, local pickled jalapenos.
Malte Bruun Iglemose
Oysters with smoked cheese, broth on molluscs, tarragon and cress.
Oysters in smoke, with smoked sour cream, East Funen fall apples and sea salad in oyster emulsion.
Oysters, oyster mayo, pickled cucumbers, onion rings, bronze fennel, dill mayo, sauerkraut and tomatoes.
Henne Mølle Å Badehotel
Leche de Henne Sea buckthorn, tonka bean, blue cornflower.
Hotel Nørre Vosborg
Oysters with tartar sauce, watercress granita and apple cider vinegar.
Raw oysters with fermented karljohan puree. Apples marinated in ramson oil / hazelnut oil / lemon oil. Ymer with oyster juice & floral notes.
Magnus Carlsen. Winner
Oyster ice cream with dark chocolate, caramel with forest brand and Talisker Whiskey, grapefruit and cocoa sponge.
Holsteiner Cox apple, white chocolate cream, gingerbread crumble, caramel, vanilla and black tea.
Oysters, pear, red kosho, hazelnuts, caramel and chocolate sauce
The Red Warehouse
Oyster tail with citrus, caramel and whipped cream
Apple cake at Sønderjysk.
Oysters with Gråsteneræbler, Romtopf on rum from Flensburg, apple sauce with Hestehavegård’s ice wine, crispy beer bread and red acid.
White chocolate and dill / Samphire ganache, buttermilk mousse, pear and vermouth, almonds.
Oysters & Sandwiches
Jakob Spolum Winner
Seafood salad a la Waldorf: crab salad with oysters, apples, walnuts and grilled oyster cream.
Malt bread toasted in oyster butter, sea trout, grilled venison, fried oysters, dehydrated oysters, salted lemon, emulsion on browned butter and oysters.
Irish folk music boomed across the room as three, young highly focussed chefs made their entrance on stage to rhythmic clapping.
It was gladiatorial at first glance, but you had the feeling that the three were friends behind the scenes. This was the first round of the Danish Oyster Cup in which chefs compete to open 30 oysters in the fastest time.
But it’s not enough just to prise them open, no, it matters that they are presented well, in a shallow open topped wooden tray packed with ice. No flesh can be torn, no blood visible on any of the oysters (not from the oyster itself but from a competitor’s accidental cut from a slipped knife.
Meanwhile, on stage with the competitors was Michael Moran, a oyster shucking world champion from Galway, west Ireland and a scion of a family steeped in oysters lore and hospitality. Michael’s ebullient enthusiasm help builds the crowd’s excitement and shape the event into a rare, visceral competition.
Nicklas Friis Vestergaard from Bistroteket in Randers was crowned winner of 2021 Danish Oyster Cup pushing rival Mathias Nørskov from Madklubbe in Aarhus into second place. While both recorded the same final score (time + penalty points) Vestergaard took aware the winner’s crown because his completed oyster tray had the least number of penalty points awarded by the judges for infringements such as blood, shell fragments found in the finished oysters and ultimately the attractiveness of display.
To be best prepared for the international competitions, the Danish Oyster Cup follows the same set of rules. Importantly, an oyster must be opened by hand using a knife with one or two blades Knives are inspected and must be approved by the judges before the competition.
Shuckers are given 32 oysters and must present 30 opened oysters to the judges. The finished oysters should preferably be loosened properly and they should be free of shells, scratches in the flesh and blood. The best contestants complete the challenge in less than three minutes.
“It’s about being fast, but the knife must not slip so that you cut into the oyster flesh or into yourself. You can not serve an oyster presentably if there is blood on it – it drags (the final score) down in the overall rating, said one of the judges.
During the opening, judges gather in a side room, so you avoid the risk of a judge being influenced by activity in the room.
Participants’ oysters are assessed and scored on the basis of the following:
- Good presentation, good opening and without errors. Each oyster is detached from the shell.
- The oysters must be intact – not cut in, grated in, wounded and without blood.
- An orderly and tidy presentation in the ice tray.
- Points are awarded primarily based on the opening hours of the 30 oysters.
Bonus points can be awarded for the final presentation of the 30 oysters on the tray. Judges can optionally award 1 to 30 points for the presentation which is assessed on the basis of how attractive the tray will look to a customer in a restaurant.
Oyster Grand Prix
The oyster Speciale de Claire from Familie Roumégous took the top spot in the tasting competition, the Oyster Grand Prix, where oysters become the star of the show. Sourced from different countries and continents, the oysters were tasted for flavour, texture. The French oyster beat all others with its beautiful green colour, intense taste and long aftertaste, said the organisers.
The Roumégous family have been farming oysters over seven generations at Bourcefranc le Chapus, located in front of the île d’Oleron, they obviously raise and refine top quality oysters.