Dave Query, founder of Jax Fish House and the Big Red F restaurant group (which now totals eleven eateries), has been running an annual oyster contest in some form since 1998, the year he launched the first Jax Oyster Eating Contest. The event has grown and evolved over the years to what it is now: The High West Oyster Fest, a charity event that raises money for a different non-profit organization each year.
This year's event wrapped up on Wednesday night at the Boulder Theater with more than 6,000 oysters consumed by competitors and ticket holders. Oysters were provided by Paul and Scott Packer of Northeast Seafood Products and proceeds of the event went to Blue Sky Bridge, an organization that provides advocacy and support for victims of child abuse.
The main events were an oyster-shucking contest featuring some of the city's top shuckers (as well as pros from both coasts) and an oyster-eating contest that also attracted some of the country's top competitive eaters. Shuckers were required to present 14 opened bivalves, with points awarded for speed, presentation and quality (contestants were docked for mangled meat and shell fragments). Oyster eaters attempted to down as many of the slippery suckers as possible in 90 seconds; past winners have averaged more than one per second, with the record-breaker swallowing 118 several years ago.
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This year's winner, Steven ‘Guido’ Orth, came up short of that record, with 85 oysters gulped in a minute and a half. On the shucking side, a bow-tied Ben Wolven, a former Jax employee, calmly cranked out 14 oysters-on-the-shell in a minute and 45 seconds.
Query shucked plenty of shells himself during the evening but didn't compete in either event, saying that he likes oysters too much to ever eat solely for speed. He also notes that oysters have gotten harder to shuck over the years as West Coast mollusks have become more popular and are grown over a shorter time period, resulting in brittle shells. One of his favorite varieties is the Emersum oyster (as in "'Em are some good oysters!") grown specially for Jax by the Rappahannock Oyster Company in the Chesapeake Bay area.
The tally's not in yet for how much the Fest raised this year, but Query says he expects it to be in the range of $75,000 to $80,000. For more photos of the event, see our complete slideshow.