Oyster Farm Dinner
At a Rhode Island oyster farm, diners put on their waders for a locavore feast straight from the water.
Story by Julie Tremaine
Photos courtesy Walrus & Carpenter
“If you like oysters, then you probably love oysters,” says Dylan Block-Harley, director of operations at Walrus & Carpenter Oysters. “And if you love oysters there’s nothing better than eating them right out of the water.” But if you don’t work at the aquaculture farm in Charlestown, Rhode Island, you can’t really have that experience—unless you manage to snag a coveted spot at one of its summer farm dinners, which happen on a sandbar right in the middle of the oyster farm.
No surprise, these dinners are one of the Rhode Island’s most sought-after food events.
This summer marks the seventh year of farm dinners at Walrus & Carpenter, a relatively small oyster farm founded a decade ago by Jules Opton-Himmel. He and his team harvest bivalves from two locations in the southern part of the state: there’s one farm in Jamestown’s Dutch Harbor, on a small island in Narragansett Bay; and one in the brackish waters of Ninigret Pond in Charlestown, the largest of the state’s inland salt ponds. The farmers want you to know where the oysters come from. Walrus & Carpenter is a small operation, but it’s the kind of place that cares deeply about getting people invested in the food that’s grown all around them. “The mission of the company is to sustainably farm the oceans and distribute that seafood directly to the community,” says Dylan Block-Harley.
These dinners are an extension of that mission and philosophy. “It came from the desire to bring people down to this incredible landscape that we work in and on every day,” he explains. “Bringing people to where the food comes from further connects people to the land. It’s such a unique environment down in the salt pond.”
Though the evening is a fine dining experience, it’s not a precious one. You’re going to get wet, and you’re going to get sandy. You’re also going to have an evening you’ll remember for the rest of your life. “There’s a lot of wading in water,” Block-Harley says. “You’re really in the elements.”
The dinner starts with a boat ride into Ninigret Pond for a farm tour. “Everyone is standing in the water,” he explains, “and we just talk them through the process of raising an oyster. Oyster farming is something you can’t see from the top of the water. It’s an immersive experience.” Then, guests go to an in-the-water raw bar, which is set up using farm equipment, for champagne and just-harvested oysters. (Walrus & Carpenter is so invested to connection and sustainability that all 20,000 oysters they sell each week are delivered to restaurants on the same day they’re harvested.)
After the raw bar, dinner guests load into ATVs and drive to a secluded beach, where there’s a long table for 48, decorated with flowers grown just up the road at Robin Hollow Farm, and a team of chefs and oyster farmers who are the servers for the evening. “It’s kind of funny having oyster farmers run the restaurant,” Block-Harley says. “It’s a mix of fine dining and down home comfortable summer environment. We try to be as good at the front of house as we can…we’ve gotten better at it.”
In past years, dinners have featured rotating chefs from some of Rhode Island’s best restaurants: Champe Speidel from Persimmon, Ben Sukle from Birch and Oberlin, Derek Wagner from Nick’s on Broadway.This year, Walrus & Carpenter is hosting James Mark and Andrew Mcquesten, the culinary team behind Rhode Island’s buzziest eateries: North, a Momofuku-inspired, boundary-pushing restaurant in Providence’s Dean Hotel; and Big King, a self-described “small, weird restaurant” on the west side of the city that serves food from a hand-written menu that changes every day. Mark, who worked under David Chang in New York, was shortlisted for the 2019 James Beard Award for Best Chef/Northeast. (Rhode Island has a marked lack of female chefs, but Siobhan Chavarría, who is opening Berrí this summer, will participate for one night.)
Mark and Mcquesten are serving eight dinners throughout the summer, and are exclusively using foods made in Rhode Island: meat from Pat’s Pastured, produce from Wishing Stone Farm, and seafood from Katnap Fisheries. Each producer has a seat at each of the dinners, so that guests can sit with the people who grow and raise their food, and get a stronger sense of the bounty that comes from the nation’s smallest state. Nearly 400 tickets went on sale on April 27, and sold out in minutes.
“In the future, it would be great to give the experience to all the people who want to have it,” Block-Harley says. “That’s the goal: to share this incredible place we’re lucky enough to work in, in a way that’s respectful of the environment and maintains a quality experience.”