They say necessity is the mother of invention. That certainly holds true for the founders of Loftin Oysters, who produce ceramic oyster shells. Kyle Loftin, his wife, Ali, and his brother, Mike, started the company in 2011 after realizing a need for an easy, affordable way to grill oysters at home. Louisiana Cookin’ spoke with Ali Loftin about Loftin Oysters’ beginnings, the benefits of using their shells, and some of her favorite oyster recipes.
First of all, what do you call them?
Ali Loftin: We call them ceramic oyster shells. We wanted them to function in every sense of the word as close to real oyster shells as one could have, but almost like a superhero version of them. Real oyster shells can cause a lot of problems: they don’t always sit evenly on a grill, so you lose your juices and toppings.
Tell us how Loftin Oysters got started.
AL: My husband, Kyle, and his brother, Mike, are from here. I fell in love with Louisiana and my husband ten years ago. We had been living in Florida, finishing school, and had just got married and moved back to Louisiana. To celebrate being back in the state that we loved so much, we used to go to happy hour with 50-cent oysters. When you go to happy hour, it tends to end up with dinner. So we’d go to happy hour and then eighty dollars later, we had spent way too much money on oyster happy hour. One night I looked at my husband and said, “Is there not a way to do this at home that we can afford?” And he said, “You know, there really isn’t.” That was the first conversation.
At that time, Kyle was running a hotel just outside of Baton Rouge, and a guy called him and said, “Do you have any oyster shells you’re getting ready to throw out?” and Kyle said, “Yeah, why?” And the guy goes, “I want to reuse them.” Kyle said, “Reuse them for what?” And he said, “To cook on! I just buy a gallon and cook on already shucked oyster shells.” That was the lightbulb moment. Kyle talked to his brother that day; he came home and talked to me. Then he started looking to see what people were using to chargrill oysters at home. People were either using muffin tins or making little tinfoil bowls. And Kyle said, “Why not ceramic?”
One of the great things about our shells is that because they are shaped like real oyster shells, when you cook with them on the grill, the flame can wrap around the oyster shell, and the flameware that the shells are made from distributes the heat evenly, thus cooking the oyster uniformly. The flame kisses the top of the oyster, and that’s where you get the smokey flavor. When you cook with a muffin tin, there is no way for the flames to cook the oysters evenly or kiss the top of those center oysters.
Our shells are made from a special flameware. That’s what allows them to stand up to the direct flame of the grill and in the oven under the broiler, and that’s why they work so well even in commercial kitchens. We have several restaurants now that use our shells. That’s how durable our shells are.
Where can people see the Loftin Oyster shells in action before they buy them?
AL: Redfish Grill, which is a Brennan family restaurant, Café Amelie, Restaurant des Familles on the Westbank . . . . There’s also a Brennan’s of Houston that cooks with them, and another restaurant in Houston that cooks with them called B&B Butchers.
Had any of you worked with ceramic stoneware before, or was this the first time?
AL: This is what’s crazy. We are not creatives and artists in what I would consider true, real art forms. We learned everything we know about clay types, firing, operating the kiln, everything from YouTube. No joke. We built this business out of our garage, which is where we used to make these, sitting up ‘til 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, sipping on a little Jameson, hand molding these oyster shells. There is nothing mass-produced or high volume about our shells.
Do you still do all the production yourselves?
AL: We have a ceramicist from Loyola who makes these for us, along with three other employees. The clay is balled out, shaped, and finished all by hand. A part of the reason for that is because it ensures quality for us. We are very meticulous in how we make these—their thickness, their shape—we make sure they all have flat bottoms because, of course, sitting flat on a grill is a part of their function.
What are your favorite things to make in the shells?
AL: Two of my favorite recipes are actually not conventional ones. One of them is a Sriracha lime butter sauce. It is phenomenal. The other one is a vodka crawfish topping. You’ve heard of the Crawfish Monica or Crawfish Linda-type topping that you put on pasta. One day we were goofing around and cooking up that type of pasta, and we were making chargrilled oysters that day, too, so we just scooped some topping out and put it on the oysters and broiled them in the oven for a few minutes, and it was knock-your-socks-off good. We ended up calling it Crawfish Raoul after Kyle’s grandfather. If you’re looking for one to try, that’s the one.
Visit LoftinOysters.com for more information and to purchase. See the Loftin Oyster shells in action in this delicious recipe: Baked Oysters with Gremolata.
by Caitlin Watzke • photography courtesy of Geren Heurtin