Rifko Meier’s American Dream didn’t start with oysters. Originally from Amsterdam, he moved to SoCal at 17 and dreamed of making it big in art. In 2008, he opened an NYC art gallery. Days later, the financial markets took a nosedive — and took Meier’s hopes of art stardom along for the ride. By 2012, he was struggling to keep up in the art world and considering other options when a friend called him up and asked if he could help her shuck some oysters. “What do I know about oysters?” he said. “Except for that I love eating them.”
That short exchange planted the seed for Meier’s next line of business. Five years later, he presides over Oysters XO, a unique catering company that specializes in shucking and serving oysters at events across the country.
In conversation, Meier is hyper-animated, and he can talk about any number of topics before settling on one that really interests him. It’s easy to see how he might suddenly jump from selling art to shucking oysters, in turn ending up at some of the swankiest parties in America. All it took was a little know-how — and some Craigslist ads.
His inspiration for the company was a business model that existed back in Europe. “My friend was working at his father’s oyster farm, but not exactly making big money,” Meier explains. “Until one day he strapped on a belt full of oysters and began selling them himself.”
After that 2012 oyster excursion with his friend, Meier’s imagination kicked into gear, planning how he might bring this service to the US. The idea is simple: oyster chefs shucking in front of party guests, armed with only their knives and a belt loaded with oysters and mignonette. They shuck oysters right in front of their customers, providing any information you’d like to know about sourcing, flavor profiles, and tips for enjoying them. It’s not an easy task to shuck and serve on your feet, but that’s why they’re the pros.
A quick Craigslist post sought out people who were willing to learn everything there is about oysters. This might sound somewhat daunting, given the nuances in flavor that exist between the varieties of oysters, but Rifko makes the process easier by allowing his chefs to eat as many as they’d like. “If a pastry chef just knows pastries, a grillmaster only grills — our chefs just know oysters,” he says. “They are oyster sommeliers.”
Now, Oysters XO employs 130 oyster chefs all across the country, and they’ve seen a lot of different vibes. They’ve attended both mega-parties and small gatherings alike. “One of the first events we did was the Superbowl at the Met Life stadium, and we brought something like 6,000 oysters to the VIP parties there,” he told us. Other highlights included serving oysters at the opening of the One World Trade Center, the premiere of Hamilton in LA, and a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation fundraiser. “Telling people that you shucked an oyster and handed it to Hillary Clinton is pretty cool.”
Not that every event has to be so classy — Meier can tell you about a crazy 4th of July out in the Hamptons that didn’t go so well. “It was like that movie where they try to throw the craziest party of all time — Project X.” Eventually, the place got shut down after someone accidentally set fire to the beach grasses. “So we just left and went to enjoy a BBQ with some oysters by ourselves.”
Ever since that first stroke of inspiration, Meier has been pretty obsessive about oysters. Not only did he set out to learn everything there is to know about them, he developed a new method of shucking to ensure a perfect presentation every time. “Since you’re shucking and serving directly in front of the guests, the product needs to be consistent and clean. That’s why I source all my oysters directly, and also focus on having the perfect shucking technique.” The technique? Well, he’s happy to teach you himself, since he’s beginning to teach shucking and oyster tasting classes at the James Beard House, “Teaching America How to Shuck.” Meier says he’s looking to teach more of these classes, so don’t be surprised if he’s soon bringing his love of oysters to a city near you.
“I want everyone to enjoy oysters the way I do,” he says. “A lot of people don’t experience something this natural and unsanitized when they eat, but they should. The best celebrity chef in the world can’t make an oyster any better.”