Mark Rey has his priorities straight. As we sat at a picnic table beside St Buenaventura State beach park and slurped down the oysters grown on farms he owns in Baja California, I asked him about celebrity customers who have enjoyed his products. “The most important people are the people around this table,” he said. “A movie star likes my oysters–so what?”
Instead of celebrity stories, Rey focused on what’s really important. The things that will matter after we’re gone. The things you can take with you, like producing a sustainable, healthy, delicious seafood in the face of declining fish stocks and pollution of the oceans.
He’s built up an empire of three oyster farms in Baja Mexico, and a retail location that brings together everything that people love about the beach. Bring your own wine or beer, bring your dogs, slurp some of the best oysters I’ve ever tasted beneath Ventura’s glorious sunshine right next to one of the world’s top surfing beaches. Oh, and you can buy them un-shucked to take home or open yourself for about a buck each!
Today Rey was showing us a wide selection of the prepared dishes he creates from his farmed bivalves. Baked oysters with a leek, butter, white wine and cilantro sauce; or a Louisiana concoction with some heat atop the same baked oysters. Two different bowls of oyster stew, and the piece de la resistance–raw
Pacific oysters, big, briny and as Rey described, with a taste of cucumber after the brine. They were huge compared to the oysters I’ve enjoyed in other places around the world, with deeper shells and a huge biteful of that uniquely pungent flavor of the sea that only raw seafood can impart.
Rey fascinated us with his story, how he was once an investment banker working all over the world, and he just got hit with a sense of purpose. Once that happened he had to give up pushing paper and incremental profits to seek out something more sustaining. In 1997 he scouted out locations for the perfect harbor and the highest quality water to grow the oysters from seed. Baja, with its lack of population and industrial run-off, turned out to be perfect, and he harvested his first oysters in 2000. Later he researched state parks and was invited to open a trailer in Ventura. The gourmet delicacies we sampled today actually came from a food truck that he parks next to the trailer that contains a fully inspected kitchen. They are open Friday through Sunday and the two stations keep busy throughout the day.
I asked him about a condiment that many people dab atop raw oysters–cocktail sauce. To Rey this is, let’s just say, not a good idea. He prefers a vinaigrette mixed with herbs to keep the flavor of the oyster from being overpowered by the red. He also sees a huge market for his products, pointing up north to Hog Island near San Francisco where they sell many thousands of oysters every day. Raw oysters are only 10 calories and contain many minerals and omega-3s. But don’t expect to see a brick and mortar version of the Jolly Oyster opening any time soon. Remember the priorities? In his measured and thoughtful tone, Rey again spoke of what makes him truly happy, and it doesn’t involve building an oyster retail empire. “We will die one day and you can’t take it with you,” he said.