Raw Ambition

Skip Bennett made his Duxbury oysters the must-have ingredient for the nation’s top chefs. As a new Kenmore Square restaurant proves, that was just his first course.

By Alexandra Hall | Boston Magazine |

THE CLUSTER OF TENTS at the Island Creek Oyster Festival is glowing magenta under Duxbury Beach’s swath of inky sky. For five hours now, wine, beer, and vodka have been flowing — sometimes literally — all over the sand dunes that double as a floor tonight. The VIP tent is five chefs’ jackets deep, with a couple dozen of Boston’s heavyweight cooks doling out delicacies. Rialto’s Jody Adams is plating razor-clam chowder and rabbit hoagies for the festival’s hordes; Craigie on Main’s Tony Maws is arranging pork-belly skewers; Blue Ginger’s Ming Tsai is passing mignonette-splashed oysters and posing for photos with two sycophantic young shuckers. And moving among all of them — a tanned, grinning blur between the makeshift stoves and luminous green-tableclothed high-tops — is Skip Bennett.

[sidebar]Bennett is a farmer and a businessman, in that order. He’s the reason this dream team of chefs has descended onto a quiet, out-of-the-way town on the cusp of the South Shore. He’s the man who owns and operates Island Creek Oysters, the Duxbury oyster farm that, in this era of obsessive food sourcing, supplies the “It” ingredient on menus at many of the best restaurants in the country — Providence in Los Angeles, Per Se and Le Bernardin in New York, the Little Nell in Aspen. And the festival he’s throwing here tonight doesn’t just spotlight those relationships — it also helps buoy them.

“People love him for good reason,” says Seth Raynor, dabbing bright green sauce on a just-shucked specimen. Raynor serves hundreds of Island Creek oysters a day at each of his three Nantucket restaurants. “These are the best,” he remarks as he slurps one back. “They’re meaty, briny, and have a deep cup with a perfect hinge.” From five feet away, Tsai (who also keeps Bennett’s oysters on his menu) chimes in: “I went through 900 Island Creeks tonight, and not one of them was off. ”

Quality, though, is hardly the only force behind the kind of response seen here tonight. The other is Bennett himself. He’s a collision of guerrilla-marketing acumen, agro-cred, aggressive networking, and party-boy charisma. “Island Creek pushes oysters like Nike sells sneakers,” says Sel de la Terre’s Louis DiBiccari. “It’s the coolest-kid-on-the-block syndrome — they’ve got an excellent product, and they’re also the beach bums everyone wants to have a beer with.”

Food suppliers, from national distributors down to family-business cheesemakers and farmers like Bennett, are supposed to suck up to bigtime restaurants to get business. That’s not the way Skip Bennett plays it; if anything, he seems to have the entire food industry eating out of his hand.