Chef Works will be spotlighting someone in waitstaff each month through November as part of our “Five-Star Service” blog feature. In December, we’ll ask our blog’s readership to vote who has the “best story.” We’ll dress the winning restaurant with Chef Works gear!
By the time you finish reading this sentence, Isabella MacBeth could have shucked two oysters and be well on her way to shucking No. 3. In fact the champion shucker — who is known on the competition circuit as “Gator” — once shucked 24 oysters in 1 minute, 47 seconds.
“I started out working at raw bars and realized I really liked connecting with people,” said MacBeth, 32. “Turns out I was pretty fast and sort of just stumbled into [shucking] competitions. I won the South Carolina state title a couple of years ago, I won a Virginia state title and I finished second in the United States.”
It was a few years ago when Bella, who was raised as Charles, began acknowledging what she’d long known — that she was transgender and that’s when she began living as a woman. Charles grew up in the South, attended The Citadel and took a commission in the Army where he served three years before taking a medical discharge. But deep down, Bella always knew she wasn’t Charles.
“As a young boy I loved the outdoors,” Bella explained. “I loved hunting. I was fascinated with military history. For me, it was a way to hide. It was my armor, my camo. I’m good at sports. I’m good at hunting and I like the military so I can exude that and go overboard to the extreme so no one will question that I’m coming home from military boarding school and pulling out a dress that I’ve got hidden between my mattress while crying myself to sleep.
“It was my way of saying this is what I like about being a male. It worked for quite some time. But ultimately, when you’re not true to yourself, no matter what you are doing it’s not going to work out.”
But Macbeth hasn’t completely abandoned her old life. After all, it’s those experiences that helped shape her into the person she is today. Take her nickname, for example. “Gator” started when she was in the Army. She was the one who always kept everyone in line.
“I was always laid back and chill, until it was time to get to work,” she said. “People said I was like an alligator coming out of water and striking. Being from the South Carolina Lowcountry, we have gators. It stuck.
“When I got into shucking, that’s when I was also starting my transition. I didn’t feel comfortable yet being called Isabella or Bella because I didn’t feel feminine enough. I didn’t want to be called Charles. So I was ‘Gator.’ I carried that into competitions and now, hopefully, it’s striking fear across the oystering world.”
MacBeth is fresh off a second-place finish at the North American Seafood Expo in Boston earlier this month, where she shucked six East Coast oysters and six West Coast oysters in less than 1 minute, 20 seconds. Unfortunately, she was dinged with a three-second penalty and missed first place by 2.5 seconds.
Gator, you see, is pretty competitive.
But she’s also a people person at heart. After leaving the Army, she went and studied international hospitality management in The Hague. That brought her to multiple hospitality jobs with hotel chains – including front-of-house manager and food and beverage manager. But Macbeth always preferred interacting with customers. So when her uncle opened a raw bar, she jumped at the opportunity to work there.
Now she’s growing her own brand, consulting with multiple raw bars and offering an Oyster 101 to consumers to better understand the oft-misunderstood mollusk.
More importantly, she’s at a good place with herself. After years of hiding and self-doubt, she’s confident enough to not only be known as “Gator,” but also Bella.
“I can’t hide from myself,” she said. “You just have to be passionate and work hard and meet everyone on common ground. Ultimately, people are genuine. They want to be nice and they are willing to accept you. I don’t hide from it hoping it might help women or another transgender person coming up in the culinary world.”