On a good night, Rigoberto “Rigo” Alvarado will shuck somewhere around 500 oysters.
Plying his trade behind a curved counter that looks out onto Connie and Ted’s shoreline-chic dining room, the 27-year-old chef—de facto shuck master at Michael Cimarusti’s West Hollywood seafood shack—cracks open each craggly bivalve with the same swift, fluid motion.
He jams the point of his blunt-tipped knife into the oyster’s hinge, twisting the handle like a key until there’s a soft pop. The blade wiggles forward, slicing the abductor muscle that fastens the oyster to its top shell (the lid), then swoops backwards, sliding beneath the meat to sever the muscle attached to the bottom shell (the cup), taking care not to spill too much of the precious liquor trapped inside. Any errant bits of shell are flicked away with a thumb, the lid is swept into a trash chute, and the newly pristine oyster is neatly positioned onto an icy metal tray. Four hundred and ninety-nine to go.
“When you get into a rhythm, you start to zone out a little bit,” Rigo says. “At this point I can pretty much do it without looking.”
As with any task that requires the sudden and very specific application of force, the shucking of an oyster is a remarkably easy thing to screw up. Maybe you mangle the delicate flesh. Maybe you splinter the shell into near-invisible flecks that end up caught in someone’s throat. Maybe you slip and stab your hand, which even experienced shuckers, ones that have done the task for years, are occasionally prone to doing, resulting in damaged nerves and gnarly scars (Rigo has a few on his left hand).
If nothing else, an agreed upon truth among veterans is that no one comes into this world a great shucker. You’ve got to put in the hours, or more literally, the months. As Cimarusti tells it, that’s the story of Rigo. “He’s spent enough time behind the oyster bar to become a true master of the art,” he says. “Rigo is now the yardstick we use to measure the rest of our team. He’s trained dozens of cooks behind the oyster bar, but few are as adept with an oyster knife as he is.”
At six-foot-three with a broad frame, bushy goatee, and tight black ponytail, Rigo operates with surprising finesse given his size. He can shuck fast if he wants—his personal best is 15 oysters in a minute—but working at one of the city’s best seafood restaurants means he’s more concerned with tidiness and precision than speed. “My first goal is to make each one look the same,” he says. “That’s the best thing you can do in terms of quality.”
The son of Guatemalan immigrants who arrived in 1986, Rigo was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles. His father, like many Latino immigrants, worked in restaurants, including as a prep cook and fishmonger at downtown’s Water Grill, where Cimarusti was head chef at the time. As a teen, Rigo grew up going to backyard punk shows; his favorite albums were by Black Sabbath, Bad Religion, and Tool. After high school he envisioned becoming a music producer, studying audio engineering at The Los Angeles Recording School and learning to play the bass. But a mountain of student loans meant he was quickly in need of a paycheck post graduation. “I asked my dad about getting job at a restaurant, and he told me ‘it’s a lot of labor, you won’t like it.’”
Rigo’s older brother, Jorge, who worked as kitchen manager at Cimarusti’s Michelin-starred Providence, helped him get on as a dishwasher, his first gig in a professional kitchen. After a couple months of hosing down dirty plates, Rigo was eager to start cooking. “I was sick of coming home dripping wet and smelling like suds,” he says. Soon he was bumped up to the role of prep cook. When Connie and Ted’s opened in 2013, Rigo got the call from Cimarusti and Providence co-owner Donato Po. “They thought I would be perfect for the raw bar, I think because I was pretty talkative,” he recalls with a smirk. But there was one problem: he’d never shucked an oyster before.
“When first started I was terrible,” he says. “It took me, like, a half-hour to shuck a dozen, and they looked so bad.” But his inexperience didn’t last long. Working five nights a week, Rigo would shuck oysters until his shoulder and wrist throbbed, often running his hand under hot and cold water to dull the ache. After his 10,000th oyster, he says, it was easy. Eventually he got so good he was training everyone else, instilling a mantra of focus and attention to detail. “They’ll ask me “how can I get faster?’ he says. “But what I tell them is, you should be asking, ‘how can I get better?’”
Rigo didn’t care much for oysters growing up, but when he started as a shucker, he remembers the one that set off a light bulb above his head. It was a Sweet Petite, a variety from Massachusetts, whose flavor is true to its name: briny and firm, but with a creamy, lingering sweetness. One slurp and he was hooked.
On a black-and-white letterboard behind the raw bar, Connie and Ted’s lists the oysters available that day—usually between 18 and 24 varieties, chosen by executive chef Sam Baxter. Each is subtly distinct in size, shape, texture, and flavor: Cupid’s Choice from Nova Scotia, Fisher’s Island from Long Island, Nautilus from Baja California, Raspberry Points from Prince Edward Island, California Rocks from Humboldt Bay. Sometimes they’ll land a coveted box of wild Belon oysters from Maine, or True Kumamotos from Puget Sound.
When the oysters crates arrive each morning, Rigo is the guy who inspects the shipment, scrubbing down the shells and storing them in a humidified cold case that ensures the oysters don’t get too warm (they’ll start to spawn) or too dry (their shells will open). He can identify most varieties by sight, eagerly rattling off tasting notes and details on specific regions. “Some of these take two or three years to grow, and the process is hella laborious,” he says, pointing out that a single oyster filters about 50 gallons of seawater each day. “They can get wiped out by viruses or temperature change or pollution. It’s a struggle for the oyster and the farmer. I think it makes you treat them with a little more respect.”
Running the raw bar Thursday through Monday nights, he promotes his product will the zeal of the converted. “If it’s someone’s first time eating oysters, I want them to try them plain,” he says. “Maybe you like the salty ones from the East Coast, or the ones that are more creamy from the West Coast. There’s an oyster for everyone.”
In his five years of service, Rigo has gained a serious following among regulars. Some have even brought him gifts as a token of gratitude. “Being able to articulate the differences between oysters without pretense, and with authority, is what makes Rigo so great with guests,” says Cimarusti. “He’s easy to talk to and his imposing frame belies the gentle, soft-spoken guy that he is.”
When he does take some well-deserved time off, Rigo has plans to drive up to Northern California to visit oyster farms like Hog Island, part of his growing interest in oyster farming and the people behind it. “It’s cool that you can make a living raising oysters,” he says. “I’d love to try Korean oysters, or oysters from South Africa. There’s a lot going on out there.”
For now, his reputation as Connie and Ted’s resident “oyster whisperer”—@one_bad_mothershucker is his Instagram handle—has kept him busy, especially in a restaurant that sells up to 80 dozen a night. “I would put money down that we offer oysters you wouldn’t find anywhere else,” he says. “That keeps it interesting.”
He does, however, follow one basic rule: “I try to avoid eating oysters when I’m not at work. I don’t want to get bored of them.”
Connie and Ted’s, 8171 Santa Monica Blvd, West Hollywood.
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