Toronto’s king of oysters once swapped shucks in exchange for wine

Rodney’s Oyster House, known for seafood excellence in the city, traces its roots to a 37-year-old Rodney Clark. Working as a commercial artist during the day,  he shucked oysters in backyards on the side. Paid in wine for his late-night efforts, Clark, an art school graduate with no business background, opened the restaurant to bring East Coast seafood and charm to Toronto.

How did he achieve 36 years of remarkable success, expanding to locations in Calgary and Vancouver, owning his own oyster farm, garnering praise from celebrities, locals and tourists and earning the title of multi-time Canadian Oyster Shucking Champion?

Simple: it was all because of his passion for oysters.

Rodney opening the doors at Rodney’s Oyster House in Calgary (2015).

No matter how distant Rodney Clark ventures from the oyster kingdom he established on Toronto’s King Street, the siren song of the sea will forever beckon to him. While this is partly attributed to his current retirement on the southern shores of Prince Edward Island, his unwavering connection to oysters persists because he shares his cherished memories of the people he met during his three decade tenure as the leader of Toronto’s groundbreaking new-generation oyster house.

“You can be successful in oysters if you don’t think of the money. You have to think about the oyster,” he explains. He jokes that to this day, he still doesn’t know the combination codes to the safe locks at his own restaurant, because it was never about the financial gain. 

“My dad used to say, ‘Serve a good person a good oyster, and you’d have them for life,’ and I had generations of people interested in my food,” Clark explains. “And I still do love meeting people involved in the passion of oysters.”

While Clark has moved on from the business, he’s entrusted the future of Toronto’s seafood to capable hands. He mentored Oyster Boy’s Adam Colquhoun and Guinness World Record holder in oyster shucking, Patrick McMurray. Even the late restaurateur, oysterman, and fellow Canadian Oyster Shucking Champion, John Bil, began his journey at Rodney’s.

“What we did is create a base. We created a foundation to build something on,” says Clark humbly. “And people just went with their own extension or went and did their own things with that.”

Tower of oysters; 3 ways @rodneysoysterhouse/Instagram

Clark’s love for oysters has been handed down to his children. His daughter Bronwen currently serves as the Front of House Manager at Rodney’s Toronto location, while his son Eamon has become a multi-time Canadian Oyster Shucking Champion. Eamon has also embraced his father’s legacy by establishing Little Kitchen Academy, which offers Montessori-inspired cooking classes for kids.

The most important thing for Clark is teaching people to tell the stories of the oysters. “Whether it’s loaded in a bag or fished on the bottom, it has a trip and a journey to your plate, to your fork which must be shared.”

Sharing the story and knowing the oysters has always been the key to his business.

“You can’t just flip it over. Everyone is different. And you have to look at them and say, ‘is this one good enough for that person?’” explains the retired business owner. “And that built the business and that made us almost the juggernaut for oyster houses.”

Driven by passion at the core of Rodney’s Oyster House, Clark reveals that one of his most significant challenges in his career was mastering the business aspects of his operations. He fondly refers to his business partner, Ann-Marie Celestine, as the “Godsend” who provided invaluable assistance on this front.

The other biggest hurdle, according to Clark, is managing the dual forces of Mother Nature and human nature. In any farming endeavour, he notes the constant struggle against the unpredictable elements, along with competition from larger fish farmers, humorously referring to them as the “Rich Uncle Penniebags” reminiscent of the Monopoly character. He emphasizes the importance of staying attuned to the rhythms of the ocean.

“If the market quivers a bit, your passion will carry you through and so will your knowledge of oysters,” Clark says, emphasizing that he, too, doesn’t claim to possess all the knowledge and remains in a perpetual state of learning about oysters.

In his retirement, Clark intends to remain committed to learning and staying informed about his businesses. He also plans to offer assistance from a distance whenever possible.

Oysters remain an integral part of Clark’s life, as he listens to their “song” from the waters just outside his door. Firmly believing in living life to the fullest to have stories to share, he continues to recount tales of his experiences with oysters and his journey introducing the ocean to Toronto and the remarkable individuals he encountered along the way.

“I’ve met a raft of people, and I’ve appreciated all that they’ve given me. They’ve given me a pleasure to be in the business,” he says. “We were very fortunate to have good people, good guidance, and good oysters. That will take you through the battle.”

Just as his father promised him, having provided Torontonians with excellent oysters, Clark has earned our lifelong loyalty.