Restaurant Beatrice was closed on an afternoon late in February, but the place was far from quiet. The staff at the 2023 James Beard Award nominated restaurant was in an education session with Dr. Vicki Pruente, the director of research for Palacios Marine Agricultural Research. Her organization is all about restoring oyster reefs through new development and restoration. And as oyster farming takes off in Texas after the state began granting licenses in 2019, explaining farmed Gulf oysters to all sorts of folks is a lynchpin in an evolving conversation about Gulf seafood that diners at this restaurant often find themselves having with their server.
Beatrice’s owner and chef, Michelle Carpenter, decided to start serving oysters and other seafood from the Gulf to further her restaurant’s sustainability program. “Originally, we didn’t consider using Gulf oysters for raw dishes because of their reputation,” Carpenter tells Eater Dallas, elaborating to say that people getting sick from wild oysters was a problem in the past. “But we dug into the research with Oyster South and were surprised to find out that the cultured oysters from oyster farmers are regulated, tested, and good for the environment.”
Good for the environment means good for Galveston Bay, where farmed oysters help stabilize the bay bottom and break the energy from waves, preventing further coastal erosion. They also filter the water, helping to make the bay clearer and cleaner — one oyster filters up to 50 gallons a day. And oyster reefs offer shelter and opportunities to forage for food to an array of fish and arthropods. Additionally, shortening the shipping distance of any seafood is better for the environment and gets the freshest product onto the plates of diners.
Hannah Kaplan founded Barrier Beauties, an oyster farm off the Gulf shore in Galveston, now providing Beatrice with fresh stock. Her company is the second to register as an oyster farm in Texas and, so far, the only one founded by a woman. And it’s been a long road to get them to market because, as Kaplan points out, Texas has been a holdout among coastal states to legalizing oyster farming. Kaplan says the permitting process alone took nearly a year, and the state still needs to approve a hatchery program for spawning oysters. So all of hers go out of state for the fertilization process, only to return to the Gulf when the crop is ready to be planted. But when it is in the water, Kaplan says they harvest between half a million and up to 1.5 million oysters from a single spawn.
Barrier Beauties have been available at Beatrice for a minute, primarily for use in cooked dishes like its Oysters Beatrice, a savory baked oyster with fresh greens and melted parmesan inspired by Oysters Rockefeller. But that dish uses the larger, more familiarly sized Gulf oyster. Kaplan has been working to harvest smaller oysters that she calls boutique, akin to those served raw out of Canada and from the Eastern seaboard. When they’re readily available, the restaurant plans to add them to its raw oyster program, alongside Murder Point oysters farmed in the Gulf off Alabama.
The team at Beatrice sought out Barrier Beauties, but it took someone in between to make it happen: Graham Shockley at Ocean Beauty Seafoods. He handles sales at the wholesaler, and reached out to Beatrice’s executive chef, Terance Jenkins, after becoming a lunch regular when it opened. Ocean Beauty is based out of Seattle and typically works with Pacific seafood. But with Beatrice’s focus on the Gulf — as is only proper in Cajun cooking and to fit the restaurant’s sustainability goals — the company had to build a Gulf seafood program from scratch. “In the beginning, it was pretty much we were only bringing Gulf seafood in for Beatrice,” Shockley says. “Now, we’ve introduced it to a lot of other customers, from Austin up to Oklahoma City.” That includes Heritage Table in Frisco, Shockley mentions, which has joined the new all-Gulf seafood program. And the program includes Kaplan’s Barrier Beauties, which are only found in a handful of restaurants around Texas.
A number of dishes on special at the restaurant have come from the Gulf seafood program of late, including pecan roasted red snapper, grouper with a herbed spinach risotto and etouffee sauce, and fried snapper with grit cake (cheese grits baked until the exterior is golden and crispy) and crawfish etouffee.
“Restaurants in Texas have an opportunity to help support these oyster farms doing great work for the Texas coastline,” Carpenter says, noting that the quality of Gulf oysters has vastly improved. “Diverting our dollars to local businesses might be making a very small impact right now. But as the interest increases and other chefs that get on board with this Gulf program, I know that it can have a large impact down the road.”