If you had asked ‘em 30 years ago if he thought he’d be sitting at the bar of a five-star restaurant after having delivered a batch of his own oysters to that same restaurant, he never would have believed you. And if you told him he’d be recognized as “the oyster guy” around town, he might think you were crazy.
That “oyster guy” is Tommy Leggett, a man who makes his living growing, selling and, of course, enjoying the oysters he harvests in the York River that surrounds Gloucester and York, Virginia. You might recognize him as the man behind one of Waypoint’s most-noted – and delicious – dishes, “The Waypoint Oyster.”
You’ll know him when you see him, too, usually on Thursdays – dollar oyster nights here at the Waypoint bar. He’s likely dressed in sea salt-covered sweats after spending several hours harvesting, counting and delivering fresh oysters.
He wouldn’t have it any other way. And neither would we. Here’s more about Tommy, the oysterman we love so much.
The Oyster Business
When Tommy was younger, he didn’t necessarily know he’d be “the oyster guy,” but he did take an interest in the water as a young’n from Virginia Beach.
“When I was in eighth grade, I decided I wanted to be an oceanographer,” he said. “I became geeky about it and started reading all sorts of books about the ocean.”
Those interests inspired him to study biology and earn his degree from Old Dominion University. He went on to become a student at the College of William and Mary’s esteemed Virginia Institute of Marine Science where he earned his Masters Degree in Marine Science.
At the time, Tommy knew one thing – although he wasn’t the same geeky eighth grader with his sights set on oceanography, he was still fascinated by the ocean and was now geeky about growing things. Oyster-y things.
Back then, though, the trend of aquaculture – growing and harvesting oysters in the wild but in a controlled way – hadn’t taken off.
Tommy took to a career as a waterman and, in his words, “converted to country bumpkin” after relocating to Guinea, Va. shortly after marrying his wife, Kim, whom one of his boats, “Mrs. Kim,” is named after.
“As a waterman,” he said, “you feel the pressure. You’re completely dependent on what God puts out there, and getting as much as you can, when you can.”
Then, 20 years ago, he started farming. He started in that aquaculture.
Farming, he said, is different than the watermen culture because there is more structure to it.
“The hardest day of oyster farming is the easiest day for a waterman,” he said. “You do get muddy and messy, but there is more predictability with farming.”
Success in the Oyster Business
It was 1995 when Tommy planted his first batch of oysters and ever since his business has continued to grow. He currently leases or subleases five spots in the York River for oyster harvesting, and delivers his oysters to six local restaurants every week, including Waypoint.
“Waypoint is great,” Tommy said. “I have really great interactions with Chef Hans [Schadler], Kyle [Woodruff] and Tina [Phillips]. After I drop-off oysters on Thursday nights, I’ll go and sit at the bar, and now I’m known as the ‘oyster guy.’ It’s great.”
Enjoying the Oyster Business
Leggett doesn’t mind being on the water everyday. At all. Even when it’s messy, early and less than glamorous.
On a typical trip, Tommy will divvy up the oysters into bags of 100 for a delivery, and it’s not uncommon for him to gather more than 600 oysters in one trip.
So what does he look for in his oysters?
“You want to look for consistency. You want universal shape and size,” he said. “If it’s skinny, I put it back in the water to thicken up.”
And as any dedicated (or oyster-fanatic) farmer would, Tommy samples one from each batch (“because there is no such thing as getting tired of eating oysters”) before they’re delivered to restaurants. He wants every oyster to be salty with a sweet finish – that’s the flavor he’s come to expect from the waters where he harvests.
Next time you’re saddled up at the Waypoint bar next to Tommy, ask him about oysters. Ask him about the way they’re grown. How they taste. You’ll find that the culinary and farming journey he takes you on is much like a winery tour. He’ll talk about the water where the oysters are grown, the taste of the meat on your tongue and the various ways he enjoys eating them himself. And the best part, he’ll talk and teach you as long as you want. As long as you want to listen.