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In this issue of Desert Companion, science writer Alec Pridgeon takes a sweeping historical look at Southern Nevada’s many precious Indigenous rock writing sites, with an eye toward the threat posed to them by increased outdoor recreation, as well as vandalism. Also: Six local thought leaders in healthcare share what they’d do to improve healthcare if they were in charge; and 2023 Writer in Residence Meg Bernhard kicks off her six-part series of reported essays on people and climate change.

Shucking Awesome Pulls Off the Impossible. In Your Backyard

Atavia jackson holds a tray of oysters on ice out with one hand
Illustration: Ryan Vellinga
Photo: Bronson Loftin

Fresh oysters on demand in the desert? Atavia Jackson makes it happen

Las Vegas is in the Mojave Desert. What water we do have (Lake Mead) is shrinking. It doesn’t exactly seem synonymous with fresh seafood. And yet, Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Atavia Jackson is seeking to prove it can be, through her interactive pop-up experience Shucking Awesome Traveling Oyster and Raw Bar. With 17 events under her belt in 2022, she might be onto something.

Jackson’s penchant for oysters began in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2011. Still in her early 20s, she was the private chef for a businessman who’d flown her there to cater his 80-person family reunion. During the trip, she had her first oyster: a Carolina Gold. Recalling today what it felt like to slurp down the cold mollusk with cocktail sauce, Jackson mimes an “I’m in heaven” look.

A few years after returning to Las Vegas from the reunion, Jackson honed her oyster skills at Bouchon by Thomas Keller. She also worked at Echo & Rig’s oyster bar and butchery, where she met executive chef Aram Bakalian of Lolik Catering, a regular client.

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Jackson started developing the Shucking Awesome concept in March 2020. Being laid off from CVS, where she was working during a break from the culinary world, spurred her to act on the idea. She wanted to do something outside the box, she says, and she’s a seafood girl at heart.

While the pandemic significantly affected women of color, many still find entrepreneurship to be the most “viable path,” according to a 2021 survey conducted by Gusto and the National Association of Women Business Owners.

Jackson knew she wanted to own her own business — just not a brick-and-mortar. The unpredictability of the pandemic taught her to be humble and to make calculated moves. “It made me think about every step I was going to make,” she says. “I didn’t want to fall victim to what everybody else was going through.”

Jackson also wanted to be mobile, able to bring her business wherever she went — and the low overhead was attractive. On September 21, 2021, she got her business license. But there was one thing still on her mind as she launched her first event, a collaboration with CraftHaus Brewery in March 2022: How receptive would people be to the concept?

Very, it turned out. The idea was “kind of COVID-proof,” Jackson says, because businesses where people could get oysters were closed. With her services, they could enjoy the delicacy in their backyard.

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Jackson’s wife, LaTisha Springs, wondered why she had chosen such a niche market. “My other half didn’t understand where I was coming from with it,” she says. “And then once things started picking up, she was like, ‘Wow, people really love oysters.’”

Jackson’s second event was at Dawson’s Homecoming Food & Wine Festival. There, she catered alongside La Strega and Harlo Steakhouse & Bar chef and partner Gina Marinelli, Wolfgang Puck Players Locker, and Bodega Bagel, among others — a remarkable achievement for a tiny new catering company.

Lolik Catering’s Bakalian has known Jackson for more than a decade now and watched her progress. “What she’s doing is not an easy task, to start a food business after COVID, but Atavia has the technique to back it,” Bakalian says. “Anyone can cook, but if you don’t have the technique, the execution suffers.”

In addition to its full-service raw bar, Shucking Awesome has expanded to include oyster shucker and cart service, which work well in small-scale gatherings. Clients can choose from Fanny Bay, Bruce’s Beach House, Pacific, Kumiai, and Kumamoto oysters, or special order others, provided they’re in season. Jackson gets her oysters from local distributors, tapping her network of bicoastal connections to arrange for delivery right before use and ensure her product is fresh.

She says people do often ask about eating oysters in Las Vegas, and her reply is always the same: “Just because we live in the desert, that doesn’t mean we can’t have fresh seafood.” ✦