When you think of seafood, the first adjective to come to mind is probably “fresh,” and there’s no fresher around here than Cooke’s Oysters & Seafood.
Owner Ricky Cooke has been harvesting seafood of all types for decades off the shores of Cedar Key in the Gulf of Mexico, providing ocean-to-table fish, shellfish and mollusks long before ”slow food” was a trendy buzzword.
“It’s local food that isn’t shipped thousands of miles,” he explains. “Everything is regulated and checked. It’s safe. It’s clean. It’s renewable.”
Cooke grew up in Cedar Key surrounded by seafood. He was always eating oyster, crab and fish out of the Gulf. His family had an oyster house where he learned to shuck, so it was a natural transition for him to start fishing for a living.
“When I was growing up, it was a commercial fishing town,” Cooke explains. “I wanted to make money when I was little, so I sorted crab. I was 11 when I got my first crab trap and a little boat. This old crabber I knew, I sorted crabs for him and baited traps. He showed me how to crab. My elders and older people who had lived there a long time showed me stuff and I started doing it.”
Cooke’s Oysters & Seafood opened in 1987, when Cooke was just 21 and decided he wanted to start “his own little oyster house.”
“An opportunity came up for this little oyster shack building on the edge of the main road coming into Cedar Key. I had a little money so I bought it and redid it,” he recalls. “My future wife at the time and I would shuck, and then we hired on a few more people. We moved down to where the fish house used to be in 1991, because we got into aquaculture. We started farming as much as we could right off the bat.”
Today the business is situated on Whiddon Avenue in Cedar Key. Cooke and his team sell freshly caught seafood mainly to local restaurants, other seafood stores and distributors. They specialize in harvesting clams, oysters, blue crab, stone crab and mullet. Oyster season begins around the second or third week of September, which is when Cooke and his team start their oystering routine, ramping up to the big winter oyster harvest.
“We oyster from Ozello, Florida, just south of Crystal River, to Horseshoe Beach to the North,” he explains. “We’ll get up before daybreak, drive down there and put in at the ramp. We’ll do that from November all the way until April. We get up just a little before daybreak, oyster all day long, and come in after dark.”
After years of oystering in this area, Cooke has learned all the places oysters like to live and exactly the right time to bring them in.
“Over time you just know where to look—they want to be where the water flows well, and they can’t grow on mud. One thing about oysters, when you go out oystering and you search for where they are that season, they don’t move, so you can look at them and throw them back down if they’re small so they can keep growing,” he offers. “Usually two years after a hurricane comes in, we’ll have four to five years of good oystering, and the crabs will be good too because they eat the oysters and live in them. All of that stuff is connected together.”
While business is going well today, Cooke says there was a slow period after the Gulf oil spill in 2010.
“The oil never came within 175 miles of us, but the psychological impact was there,” he explains. “We couldn’t sell an oyster after the spill. People were scared to death of the Gulf Coast oyster.”
During the summer when the oysters are out of season, Cooke travels to Alaska to run a commercial salmon fishing boat in Bristol Bay. This year, he arrived on May 22nd to begin preparing the boat. Some of that salmon is sold elsewhere, but some does make it back to Cedar Key to sell locally.
Cooke says he first fished in Alaska about 10 years ago, visiting a friend who had a boat there. While he was there, he met another fishing boat owner who asked him to run his operation
“After I ran it that season, he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I bought it [the boat],” he recalls. And Cooke knows a good captain always has his boat and equipment ready, because “the fish wait on no one.”
Cooke’s Oysters & Seafood › (352) 543-5334 › 1133 Whiddon Ave., Cedar Key, FL 32625