Shucking Oysters With a Legend

By Jennifer Coleman | Photos and Video by Capture.Share.Repeat

Last fall I had the opportunity to spend a day shucking oysters with a local legend, Xinh Dwelley. We found ourselves on the South Bay of Grays Harbor at Brady’s Oysters, enjoying the sun and breeze with fresh oysters harvested that very day.

With no public beaches accessible for oyster harvesting in the Grays Harbor area, Brady's is the first choice of locals to get fresh oysters and other seafood. Brady's is family-owned and has operated for over 50 years, where oysters are grown suspended on lines in the cold water where the Elk River meets the South Bay of Grays Harbor. This perfect marine environment has resulted in the production of top quality oysters including the Pacific and Kumamoto varieties that we picked up on our visit.

Brady's Oysters

Xinh offered to give me a hands-on tutorial for shucking, and she jumped right into the task showing me her skills and encouraging me to “just do it honey.” Her no nonsense style and radiant smile combined with her funny stories, full of little bits of knowledge about how to prepare local seafood made for a fun experience. Once I got her approval on my shucking skills, I was able to convince her to show me how to make her famous grilled oysters on the half shell. We headed to the outside grill at our condo at Vacations by the Sea in Westport and got to work preparing our topping and heating up the grill.

Xinh assured me that there really is no wrong way to make oysters on the half shell. As long as the oysters are fresh, a splash of butter and garlic is one of the simplest ways to enjoy this Pacific Northwest delicacy. However, Xinh knows how to elevate the experience and showed me a simple recipe that resulted in mouthwatering BBQ oysters. Our creation that day included fresh peppers, green onions, and garlic, combined with soy and hoisin sauce then topped with grated parmesan cheese. It was sublime!

Xinh's Oysters

I’m reflecting on that beautiful day spent with a beautiful person and remembering Xinh’s lively zest for life and captivating storytelling. She passed away on November 17, 2023 after a long and courageous battle against cancer.

Xinh's story is one of overcoming and achievement, with passion that showed through in her cooking and her dedication to the shellfish industry. With a huge heart, engaging smile, and a personality that filled every room, Xinh was loved by everyone. She touched generations and left a lasting impact on all who were blessed to share her inspired culinary genius and the warmth of her welcoming smile. Over the last five decades her accomplishments are immense and astounding – managing her own restaurant, writing three cookbooks, and serving as a celebrated chef for numerous events, restaurants, media, and dignitaries.

Xinh began her culinary journey at age 15 as a chef for a U.S. Army base in South Vietnam. She married a U.S. soldier and immigrated to Olympia, Washington with her young son. Her skills at oyster shucking made history at the first ever West Coast Oyster Championship. In 1989, her first-place speed led Xinh to win at the National level. In 1992 – with five 1st place finishes under her belt – she decided to retire from competing.

With the help of her employer, Taylor Shellfish, and Xinh’s astounding talent for cooking, she launched her first restaurant, Xinh’s Clam and Oyster House in Shelton in 1996. It quickly became a popular culinary destination in South Puget Sound.

Xinh won many awards, including Honorary Master Culinary Chef. She cooked for numerous celebrities, including Anthony Bourdain and Julia Child, and was often featured in articles and on television. She hosted many non-profit dinners for years until she closed her restaurant in 2017 due to failing health.

In recent years, Xinh published three acclaimed cookbooks, hosted many fund-raising dinners and in 2019 received the Flame Award from Mason General Hospital. She served as the Grand Old Oyster of Shelton’s annual Oyster Fest in 2022 and for the last year of her life she shared her recipes with locals and visitors at the Fjord Oyster Bank in Hoodsport, Washington. Xinh was featured on King5 Evening Magazine and was inducted into the Washington Chefs Hall of Fame by the Washington Chefs Association.

Despite her countless adventures, awards and accolades, Xinh’s most cherished joys were her family and the friendships formed along her journey. This story is dedicated to Xinh Dwelley. Thank you for sharing your love of cooking and talents with us all, may you rest in peace.

Huynh Thi Xinh Dwelley 1951-2023