Perth’s oyster shucking king, Jerry Fraser, believes it may well be a dying art.
While Jerry has never been busier plying his trade around Australia’s bars and restaurants with his own brand of humour and conversation, engaging patrons as he shucks the oysters in front of them, he says very few youngsters seem to have the talent or desire to take up the trade.
Born in Inverness, Scotland, Jerry left his homeland as a baby with his mum and his dad who was an instrument engineer involved in copper mining and went to live in the Peruvian Andes.
After primary school he went to boarding school in the UK and finally made his way to university in Tampa, Florida in the United States where he studied general business and administration and then did a degree in geology.
It was in Florida that he learned to speak Spanish and got his first real taste for oysters.
“I’d had a taste when I was about 13 in Norfolk but didn’t think much of them and wasn’t too sure why people ate them, it wasn’t a great experience for me, but at university we used to go and visit an oyster bar called the Copper Top,” Jerry says.
“It was just a raw bar as they call them in the States, sawdust on the floor, raw oysters, steamed clams and jugs of beer, that was it – and Jimmy Buffet playing in the background – I loved it and that’s the vibe I really enjoy.”
He would visit with friends at least twice a week. The brothers who owned it, two basketball players, offered Jerry work when they opened a new bar.
“They said you can eat free and drink free, so I did that for the last two years of my uni degree; I helped run a bar as a hobby and it was a lot of fun.”
When he graduated in 1982 Jerry went back to Peru and did a year of geology before going back to the UK for a cousin’s wedding and decided to try to get a job there.
He responded to a job ad which said, famous seafood restaurant seeks oyster man.
It turned out to be the very posh restaurant Bentley’s in the West End of London, the oldest seafood restaurant in the U.K.
The interview went well as Jerry showed off his shucking skills and was offered the job, so long as he lost his beard and ponytail.
“That was the beginning of my oyster career,” he says.
Jerry spent 12 years in London and in his time there shucked for celebrities ranging from the then Prince Charles and Lady Diana to the Rolling Stones Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, actors Oliver Reed, Sir John Gielgud and Elephant Man actor John Hurt who would sit at the bar with his Perrier Water, oysters and smoked salmon.
In London he met a young lady from Perth in 1988. Fiona, who was also working in hospitality and their romance grew with the pair getting married in 1991. They now have two grown up sons, Cam and Callum.
Jerry and Fiona visited Perth when Cameron was a year old because Fiona’s grandmother wanted to celebrate her first great grandson’s first birthday in Perth.
“I’d never been to Australia but being a geo I’d heard a lot about Australia.
“The Aussies and the Scots are very similar, the same sense of humour and they don’t take themselves too seriously.
“We spent five weeks in Perth, and I couldn’t believe it, the greenery and the beaches, the river, my in-laws live in Mosman Bay, so they lived just above Meads there and everywhere was friendly.”
Jerry and Fiona came to live in Perth when son Callum was 10 weeks old and Cam was two, arriving on Mother’s Day 26 years ago.
Jerry was quickly drawn into the restaurant industry, helping to manage The Boathouse in Scarborough but was surprised there were no oyster bars in Perth.
He says nobody really knew what an oyster shucker was, someone who runs oyster bars, opens oysters for a living and does it in front of the public.
“There’s a lot of interaction and it’s more like theatre,” Jerry says.
When Warren Mead was opening the new Fish House in Subiaco Jerry met up with him and soon started working with him, setting up the oyster bar at the Fish House which initially sat 15 people, but got so busy they expanded to seat 30.
Jerry spent five years working at different Mead establishments before a damaged elbow tendon forced him to take time out to recover before going freelance.
His first job was two weeks at the Grand Hyatt in Jakarta which gave Jerry a taste for more international work, leading to stints in Bali, Singapore and the U.S. as well as around Australia.
In Perth he spent time at The Royal and the Raffles before going to Print Hall where Jerry had his name up in lights on the oyster bar, then to freelance at Five Bar in Mt Lawley and Lot 20 in Northbridge.
Jerry now has seven venues on the go and is working pretty much seven days a week. “I like being here, there and everywhere with the oysters and it’s a lot of fun and here in Australia it’s a great product.”
He’s constantly surprised at how few oyster bars there are in Australia.
“It’s not an easy profession to be in,” says the 67-year-old.
“It’s quite hands on. At a proper oyster bar, you sit at the bar and talk to the guy who is performing behind the bar and it’s a great way to interact.”
While the demand from consumers is there, Jerry says he is knocking back work from corporate clients and only has a list of two or three names of other shuckers he can give them.
“I get asked all the time why I don’t train up some kids.
“You know what, I’ve tried, but they don’t want to work weekends, they don’t want to work Friday, Saturday, Sunday and they don’t want to get their hands dirty. They want to get paid, but they don’t want to work the hard hours.
“It’s unfortunate because people like the theatre.
“And there are a lot of opportunities if the right people come along.
“I would love more youngsters to get involved with seafood and learn the art of shucking, because it is a dying art, sadly,” he said.