It's a busy evening at St. Roch Market, the elegant collection of a dozen or so small restaurants hidden on a top floor in the Design District. A pride event is happening, and the usual after-work crowd is peppered with drag queens sipping drinks garnished with rainbow flags.
A DJ plays a medley of retro dance hits including Madonna's "Into the Groove." A drag queen, teetering on impossibly high gold heels, is holding the market's door open while gesturing with a glass of Chardonnay perilously close to spilling onto her lamé dress. Gift certificates and a year of free mimosas are being raffled off to an enthusiastic crowd.
Behind the counter at Elysian Seafood, a raw bar located just inside the hall (140 NE 39th St., Suite 241, Miami; 786-542-8977; elysianseafood.com), a petite woman in black jeans, a black fisherman's cap, and a chef's coat dons a black apron and lays out a thick white towel. She places a silver tray on it and pours out cracked ice that shines like diamonds. Next, she dips her hand into one of several oyster wells behind the bar, pulls out six Savage Blondes flown in that morning from Prince Edward Island in the North Atlantic, and lays them out in front of her.
She takes a restaurant napkin, folds it lengthwise, and wraps it around one hand; with her other hand, she picks up a short, flat knife. Working quickly yet meticulously, she opens each of the nearly perfect ovals in mottled shades of beige and caramel and places them back on the ice. Then she revisits each of the mollusks, making sure that the meat is free from the adductor muscle and that the "liquor" remains in the shell. With the handle of the knife, she opens two perfect hollows in the ice and places small cups of cocktail sauce and mignonette in them. Finally, she adds some lemon wedges. The entire ritual takes about a minute.
"Did you know oysters have colorless blood?" she asks. "That could be the reason why they're so appetizing and one of the only thing humans eat alive."
Forty-three-year-old Lisa Chadwick calls herself a master shucker. She has prepared oysters at some of the finest seafood establishments in Miami, including Mignonette. She got her start at Edge Steak & Bar at the Four Seasons in Brickell, where she opened more than a thousand oysters in a 12-hour shift. She has also acted as oyster consultant for Kush Hospitality's seafood concept, the Spillover, in Coconut Grove.
Chadwick likens herself to a sushi chef, whose work is both in the back and the front of the house. Oyster shucking — tedious and strenuous at the same time — is traditionally done by men who stand for an entire shift. Anyone can open an oyster, but Miami's finer seafood restaurants require the mollusks to be presented with the shell and precious juice intact.
"An oyster is a true delicacy, and it needs to be treated as such," Chadwick says.
Chadwick's fascination with oysters began in Fort Myers when her eighth-grade science teacher brought them to class. "That was the first time I ever shucked one," she says. Growing up in a family with three adopted siblings, Chadwick showed keen intelligence from an early age, her mom Linda says. The special-education teacher recalls the day she adopted Lisa. "I put her on a blanket by the door, and when I turned back to her, she was gone. She was only three months old, but she had scooted away. She was a very exceptional baby."
Linda Chadwick says Lisa began talking at 12 months and read to her siblings when she was 2. Though she had a natural affinity for math and computers, she chose to study art in college. "She fixed our VCRs and loved computers, but she thought it was boring to sit at a desk, so she switched majors."
In 1994, Lisa was leaving a grocery store parking lot when an out-of-state, uninsured driver hit her car head-on. She suffered a concussion and was left with neurological damage and short-term memory loss. After months of physical therapy and unable to finish art school, she moved in with relatives in Miami, where she worked as a secretary in the offices of several restaurant chains.
Soon she was bored, so she took small kitchen jobs and pondered culinary school. In 2012, the Four Seasons offered her a job at its signature steakhouse, Edge. Says Chadwick: "I could go to school, come out $40,000 in debt, and start as a line cook, or I could take the job and start as a line cook and work my way up."
She began working the line and shucking oysters before being tapped by Michael Shikany for his eponymous, short-lived Wynwood restaurant. "Michael is not with us any longer," she says of the chef's tragic death in 2017. "That was a hard loss for me."
After the closure of Shikany, Chadwick heard of a new seafood restaurant by Blue Collar's Danny Serfer and had her heart set on the job. "I worked in the kitchen shucking oysters," she says. "It was the perfect fit for me."
Serfer met Chadwick during a hiring open house for the restaurant. "She just walked in off the street... I hired her on the spot," he recalls.
The hire proved to be a good one. "Lisa actually taught me the proper way to get an oyster open. We all learned a lot from her. On the Mignonette family tree of oyster shucking, Lisa is the top."
Serfer compares her skills to those of top-tier chefs. "She has the same ability as a good hot-line cook to work with speed and precision. In terms of pure shucking, I'd say she's the best in Miami."
She worked briefly at Mignonette Uptown and then left right before it closed. "The happy hours were standing room only, but I don't think the operation was cost-conscious," she says. "Toward the end, the expenses started catching up."
Since 2015, Chadwick has also worked at Le Zoo — Stephen Starr's French bistro in the Bal Harbour Shops (9700 Collins Ave., #135, Bal Harbour; 305-602-9663; lezoo.com). Although her official title is line cook, she has made the raw bar her own. At 6:30 one evening last week, Chadwick freshened up the raw bar display with oysters, shrimp, and lobster. Le Zoo manager Juan Carlos Briones says oysters are a key component to helping a busy kitchen staff by occupying guests while their meal is being prepared. "When we have questions about oysters, we do not Google," general manager Hector Diaz says. "We 'Lisa.'"
Back at St. Roch Market's Elysian Seafood, chef Mihalis Tzovaras is trying to talk over the drag queens and the raffle. He met Chadwick when he was the executive sous-chef at Mignonette Uptown. He says they forged a team. "It was close quarters, and we were really close, like cell mates. When servers would come from behind, she'd throw elbows."
When Tzovaras was hired at Elysian earlier this year, he brought in Chadwick. She's paid pretty well, he says. At the restaurant, a shucker starts around $15 an hour plus tips. "Over at the original Elysian in New Orleans, they're used to hiring shuckers," he says. "Here, when we put an ad out, we get six people as opposed to about 60 for a line cook."
Chadwick's hands are nicked with scars and callouses. Her cap acts as a sort of blinder. "The hat is my trick. I'm dealing with a knife, so I have to keep my concentration, and people come up to me to ask for a table or where the bathroom is. When I have to, I put my hat down so I don't make eye contact."
After she takes off her rubber gloves (she constantly changes them to prevent cross-contamination of possible allergens), she's eager to talk about oysters. You'll likely never find a rare pearl in your Blue Points, she says. Her eyes light up when she adds, "I absolutely believe that oysters are aphrodisiacs." Chadwick remembers two dinner guests locking themselves in a bathroom after consuming a few dozen. Indeed, that was the beginning of her greatest achievement. "One couple came into Mignonette several months after having my oysters to show me their new baby."
Despite all of that, her mom is not that impressed by her daughter's work. Although she's proud of Lisa's unique profession, she doesn't think she could do it. "I really don't like oysters," Linda says. "I'm more of a grouper person."