Students learn the biz on oyster plant tour

Kathleen Nesbit of Goose Point Oysters gave students from Astoria High School and Tongue Point Job Corps a tour of her family's oyster plant in Bay Center.<I><BR>DEEDA SCHROEDER/The Daily Astorian</I>

BAY CENTER - For Katrina Gauthier and Brittany Olsen, sophomores at Astoria High School, downing raw oysters doused in cocktail sauce was no big deal. Sure, it was Olsen's first time ingesting the raw, jumbo shellfish. But she was still cool as a cucumber.

"It was good," Olsen said, smiling after the oyster had made its way securely into her gullet.

Josh Wareham, a sophomore, didn't quite have the same opinion.

"It was dank," he said, after the plump gray oyster slid down his throat. But maybe that was a compliment.

"It was my first time. It was really good, really excellent," Wareham said next.

For five Astoria High School and nine Tongue Point Job Corps Center students last week, a half-day field trip to Bay Center to visit Goose Point Oysters ended with oyster shooters all around. Their chef instructors, Eric Jenkins of the Duncan Law Seafood Consumer Center and John Newman of Newman's at 988, a Cannon Beach restaurant, organized the tour as part of the schools' curriculums.

Kathleen Nisbet is the human resources and payroll manager for the company.

First Nisbet asked the group a basic question to gauge their bivalve knowledge.

"Does anyone know anything about oysters?" she asked the small crowd gathered outside next to a large rectangular white plastic seed tank. After a moment of silence in response, she continued.

"Well, then we'll start at the beginning," she said.

Nisbet is the 23-year-old daughter of David and Maureene Nisbet, who started the company in 1975 with just 10 acres of tidelands. Now the company owns 500 acres and employs 45 full-time employees. She's slowly learning the ropes, and has worked in the oyster beds herself. She explained just how oysters come into being.

"Tiny oyster seeds look like baby grains of sand," she said. Three million of those seeds are added to "mother" shells, or shells from long-since eaten oysters, where they're treated to a warm water bath and a diet of tasty algae. For up to three days, the growth continues, until they're ready to move out to their new home in the Willapa Bay.

"How many oysters attach to one shell?" asked instructor Jenkins.

Nisbet explained to the group of students that about seven or eight would grow from each original host shell.

"Where do you get the seeds?" asked Newman. A company in Tillamook spawns them, she said.

"We do mostly bottom culture, where they grow in the mud," Nisbet explained. The tidelands are staked out to mark the individual beds, with ribbons to show whose beds belong to whom when the water covers the surface. But when the tide goes out, Nisbet said the beds form a pattern she still likes looking at.

"It looks like a patchwork quilt," she said.

It takes three years to grow a large-sized oyster, and the mollusks must be planted every year to keep up with the harvest cycle, Nisbet said. Many of the largest specimens are exported to Asian countries like China and Japan.

She praised the pristine water of the bay, reputed to be among the cleanest in the world. Gills filter the oyster's food - plankton - from the water. The cleaner and fresher the water, the better the oyster tastes, Nisbet said. Because the bivalves go through 50 gallons of sea water a day, keeping that water clean is a big priority for the company, she added.

"We protect the water and make sure there's nothing going into it. The oysters literally are the water they grow up in," Nisbet said.

The group went inside to look at the giant hopper where steel tubs of harvested oysters are dumped to be shucked. It looks like a bus-sized feeding trough, holding 1,200 bushels each time - for a whopping 60,000 total pounds. Workers sit at the bottom of the tapered feeder, practicing their shucking dexterity for eight hours a day, four to five days a week. Nisbet said the shucking crew members are paid by the pound to encourage speed and accuracy.

"These guys are fast, and they make real good money doing what they do," Nisbet said.

The Tongue Point Culinary students will review what they learned in class, Newman said, exploring how their experience fits with their textbook material. Newman works full-time at the Job Corps Center while maintaining his chef position at his restaurant, an arrangement that makes for some long days, he said.

"I have a day and a night job," Newman said. Standard days can start at 6:30 a.m. at his Cannon Beach professional kitchen, and after his eight hour day at Tongue Point, he ends up back there again at the end of nightly dinner service.

Jenkins teaches the high school students basic seafood culinary classes, from knife skills to gear needed for fishing, in a class he calls, "From Ocean to Plate." The high school group also does an individual job-shadow with a chef toward the end of the year, and each student chooses a particular local fish to study at length.

It's all building up to the Seafood Graduation Dinner, when the class will prepare and cook a meal for the 80-person Astoria High School staff. Until then, they'll polish recipes, work on technique, and have another field trip to Bornstein Seafood. Jenkins will help each student select a recipe they'll prepare for the event - one that's challenging enough without snuffing out the students' aspirations.

On the menu will be Josh Wareham's Oysters au Gratin, a recipe he's hopefully perfected thanks to Jenkins' help and the visit to Goose Point Oyster's operation.

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