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Please direct all media inquiries to Jim Yeager at breakwhitelight public relations.
Written by Michael Park
Photographed by DYLAN + JENI
Welcome to Out of the Kitchen, our ongoing exploration of the relationships that build and sustain the food industry. This year, we’re traveling the country to look at the changing landscape of food markets. Hyper-local markets—filled with myriad grocery, retail, and restaurant options like the ones found in Europe—are on the rise. These markets benefit from their interconnected buying power but operate like small, independent businesses, allowing them to focus on quality ingredients, culinary innovation, and intimate, personal customer service. Through quality, personal touches, and exceptional product, these new food halls are revolutionizing retail one transaction at a time.
Growing up near Montpellier in the south of France, Christophe Happillon knew exactly what he wanted for his 12th birthday.
“The diving knife from Dr. No,” he says. “For a 12-year-old, it’s not Ursula Andress who’s sexy, it’s the knife.”
Happillon was raised on and around the ocean, and had already been working for years with oystermen like his father and grandfather, doing all the little tasks that bring those juicy, briny nuggets on the halfshell to a customer’s plate: diving, shucking, cleaning. So he had the money for the knife. And his mother, perhaps amazingly, signed off on him buying it. He was ecstatic.
“We didn’t have Chuck Yeager like you had here in the States,” Happillon says. “We had Jacques Cousteau. This guy who created a world of science, who invented the Scuba and opened up the world of oysters to scallops to clams, this is what was great.”
So Happillon, the 12-year-old French kid with saltwater in his veins, bought himself his oversized diving knife and proudly took it with him on his next dive down to the oyster beds near his home. He quickly spotted a likely target.
“The first thing I did was try to use it with a flat oyster, but it wasn’t opening. So I tried to take it like this,” he says. He palms an imaginary broad bivalve in his left hand while trying to jimmy it open with the invisible diving knife in his right with an increasingly steep angle and more and more forceful flicks of his wrist. It may be an imaginary shellfish, but it’s definitely not giving. He gives it one last, sharp, fateful twist.
“So I break the knife,” he says. He slowly opens the fingers of his right hand as if letting his hard-won birthday present to himself slide away into the deep blue Mediterranean. “So I used a screwdriver.”
Decades later, Happillon is a naturalized Angeleno, manning the tiny space behind his new, bivalve-shaped kiosk, The Oyster Gourmet, in downtown Los Angeles’ Grand Central Market. His shattered diving knife is long gone, but the lesson he took from that 12th birthday is something that infuses every plate of raw oysters on the half-shell that goes out to his customers today: It’s not about the fancy silverware, white tablecloth, champagne flutes, or even the knife. When it comes down to it, it’s all about the oyster.
Happillon’s the only master ecallier in Los Angeles, serving a simple selection of oysters and raw-seafood dishes (the tuna poke’s a candy-colored, sweet-and-tangy tower of deliciousness on a large scallop shell) out of his brand-new kiosk. The market’s newest addition, which opened in October 2014, is a 16-seat aluminum, plywood, and canvas construction with “shells” that yawn open and shut close at the beginning and end of each day.
“It’s almost an island, which is perfect with seafood,” Happillon says. “And what are you going to get at an island? Shellfish. When I talked to the architect, he said, ‘There’s Superman, there’s Batman, there’s Spider-Man. You’re going to be Oyster-Man.’”
It’s a fair description, considering Happillon seems to have shellfish on the mind at all times. He trained not in restaurants but in aquatic farming, learning how everything about the environment an oyster grows in affects its taste.
“I like to think of the merroir, the salinity of the ocean, how far the land was, what the land around it was like,” he says. “Do I taste rain from the precipitation coming off the nearby mountain? The geology also: is the brackish water bringing out the sediment, silicates, silt? Is there lots of acidic, decayed wood? Is it a low water table? Every oyster tells its own story.”
He married a California woman, moved to Los Angeles in the mid-’90s, and worked at various stints in the local fish business, mostly in retail. But when the couple separated, Happillon found himself a 44-year-old Frenchman with a degree in aquafarming in Los Angeles, starting his life “from scratch.” He began selling oysters for local clubs and brasseries.
“I went to the first place and asked them who was doing their oysters, and they said, ‘We’ve got the dishwasher doing it,’” he says. “I said, ‘No, no, no. In order to sell the oyster, people have to see the oyster. You have to make it appealing. It’s not something you do in the back, oysters belong in the front of the house, and you have to talk to the customer, because that’s where you make the sale.’”
Using a food cart he put together with parts from Ikea, Happillon began making the rounds of high-end restaurants around Los Angeles, sourcing the oysters himself and selling them directly to customers at the tables. That has snowballed into a business where he supplies oysters for over 50 restaurants around the area.
“I only bring my own oysters, I only shuck my own oysters,” he says. “I present the oysters like a sommelier presents the wine.”
In 2012, he began talked with the Grand Central Market about establishing his first permanent spot as part of a makeover for the entire space. He was wary, at first.
“It was a slab of concrete, where we are now. I wasn’t truly impressed by the crowd,” he says. “I said, ‘These people aren’t going to buy oysters.’ But the appeal of the place is that it’s the belly of Los Angeles, and has been since 1917. If there’s one place in Los Angeles people come to eat, this is it. And this is Los Angeles: Brentwood isn’t Los Angeles, Santa Monica isn’t Los Angeles.”
As far as he’s concerned, The Oyster Gourmet is no different than the carts he uses to take oysters to diners across the city. It just doesn’t happen to have wheels. He still gets his shellfish from the same farmers he’s known and worked with for years, and he’s still the guy you see doing most of the shucking behind the counter. Today, Happillon’s oyster shack is constantly abuzz with patrons ringing his counters on his stools, or dropping in and asking him or his staff about the menu of the day: Are the Baja oysters especially sweet and creamy today, or the ones from Puget Sound? Is today the day to try the Manila clams?
“I can talk to the people around here for hours about seafood,” he says. “It’s my deep pleasure. But when people always ask, ‘What is a good oyster?’ my answer is always, ‘A fresh oyster.’”
And when asked what’s a good oyster knife? In between shucking palm-sized Bajas, he opens the fingers of his right to reveal a short, utilitarian oyster shucker with a blue rubber handle, the kind of knife you can get for about $2 at a restaurant supply store. In his left hand is a pristine Baja, flat and broad.
“For me, the oyster is sexy,” he says.
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