If there have been any silver linings in the dark cloud that was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, Oysteria could be considered one of them.
The two-year-old company, which handcrafts oyster plates in the back of a New Orleans floral shop, was just getting off the ground when the spill occurred.
“When we heard about the spill, we realized it would either make us or break us,” said Stewart Massony, who left the restaurant industry to join his wife, Leslie Stidd Massony, and her partner, Monique Chauvin, in their upstart business. “It ended up making us.”
In the 18 months since the spill, Oysteria’s three-dimensional, oven-safe oyster plates, platters and dishes are proving so popular, the Massonys and Chauvin are having trouble keeping up with demand for them.
Retailers from Dallas to the Mississippi Delta, including the Red Onion in Baton Rouge, carry them. Jewelry designer Mignon Faget has designed her own line of them. And U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., recently ordered them to give away as krewe favors at the Washington Mardi Gras ball next year.
“They advertise themselves, really,” said Leslie Massony, who crafted the first oyster plate on a whim. “I think after the oil spill people realized how much we love oysters in Louisiana and how much the oyster really means to us.”
While the timing of the BP spill may have been a boon for Oysteria, so has been a renewed interest in antique oyster plates, which were popular in the late 1800s and can fetch several hundred dollars apiece at antique stores and auctions.
Entire books are written for collectors of them. In the past decade, the price of the delicate porcelain plates, which are used for serving and eating but not baking, have gone from as little as $50 a plate to $500 or more.
Oysteria’s oyster plates, by contrast, are decidedly more contemporary and practical. They are made from clay and can, therefore, be used for baking dishes such as Oysters Bienville or Oysters Rockefeller, as well as for serving them.
Another difference between the antique plates and Oysteria’s is that the latter do not have indentations in which the little bivalves sit, smothered in rich spinach, garlic or cheesy stuffings.
Rather, they are three-dimensional with mold-casted oyster shells that are glazed onto square, circular or oval-shaped plates or platters.
The idea to make oyster plates came from Leslie Massony, who spent 25 years in the floral business. After Hurricane Katrina, she decided to reinvent herself. Bored with flowers, she and Chauvin began taking pottery classes and after a while, “throwing pots wasn’t doing it for me,” she said.
So, inspired by Stewart’s aunts, who love oysters, she made an oyster plate. It turned out surprisingly well so she showed it to her next-door neighbor, who as good fortune would have it, is an interior designer. The designer loved the plate so much she ordered 15 for Christmas gifts.
“We’ve been blowing and going ever since,’” Leslie Massony said.
Making the plates is a multistep and dayslong process that involves both Massonys and Chauvin. They begin by casting clay molds from real oyster shells, of which they have dozens of interesting sizes and shapes. They bake the casted shells in a fiery, 2,200-degree kiln for 12 hours then do the same thing for the handcrafted plates.
After the shells and plates have cooled, which takes another full day, they paint them, using a variety of muted brown, blue and green tones. Then, they place the shells on the plates — either one, three, six or a dozen, depending on the style — and glaze them, which adheres the shells to the plate. Then it’s back in the kiln for another 12 hours or so.
“You can’t take them out too soon or they’ll crack,” explained Stewart Massony, who is learning the finer points of pottery through trial and error.
What Massony has not had to learn is how to use the plates to make mouth-watering oyster dishes. He spent nearly two decades in the New Orleans restaurant industry, working for Ralph Brennan, and comes from an Italian family that loves to cook.
He and Leslie have enjoyed experimenting with different types of oyster dishes and sharing recipes with friends and customers, many of whom are learning to cook oysters for the first time.
“Oysters are such a special part of our culinary heritage and they’re so delicious,” he said. “We’re glad we are able to promote them and get people to cook with them and think about them through our plates.”
With demand for their products increasing, the Massonys and Chauvin are trying to figure out how to handle the growth. Well-meaning friends have advised them, among other things, to go to China to have their plates manufactured.
“It would make it easier, but then it wouldn’t be a Louisiana product anymore,” Stuart Massony said. “We want to keep them handcrafted and homemade.”