From Barnstable to Bali, Les Hemmila has lived a colorful life. A native Cape Codder, he moved to Santa Barbara in his teens and worked as an abalone diver. He spent a dozen years in California, apprenticing as a boat builder and eventually buying the company. That's when he moved to Indonesia where he taught the locals how to build boats from molds that his company had sold them.
Les became fluent in Bahasa, and stayed in Indonesia for 13 years. He met his wife there, although she was originally from Jacksonville. While he was involved in a variety of boat and fishing-related projects, Valerie helped start up the Bali International School. "It was a beautiful country," Les says, " there were 13,000 islands and I ran boats all over, as well as surfing the islands and spear-fishing."
They eventually left, deciding they wanted to raise their two sons, then ages 5 and 9, in America--specifically back in Barnstable. Today, Jared, who graduated Stonehill College with a business degree, is working in Jacarta, teaching English. He was bored working in an investment house, Les says, and wanted to go back to Indonesia where he can do things like white-water raft and mountain-climb during his leisure time. Aaron is working in a Cape restaurant while pursuing a communications major. Valerie is a detective with the Barnstable Police Department.
It was in 1991 that Les started commercial clamming, again building his own boat. In 1993, he got his first shellfish grant, for over three acres in Osterville where he raised oysters and little neck clams.When he got a second grant in Barnstable and then later, his wholesaler's license, he started established Barnstable Sea Farms.
Today, his business is so successful that he says, "I work eight hour days, seven days a week, and still have trouble meeting the demand." Not only does he harvest his oysters, he delivers them the same day to about half a dozen high-end Cape restaurants, including 902 Main (read more later about Chef Gilbert Pepin), The Red Pheasant, and The Naked Oyster. "I love working with chefs," Les says, "I've had nothing but good luck dealing with them."
His affinity for chefs is not surprising. Les and Valerie love to eat, and recently went to Tuscany (Italy) just to wine and dine. "It was a wonderful trip," he says, "and we hope to do more travel like that soon. But I like all kinds of food--sushi, Thai, Mexican, Indian--and we also enjoy the restaurants that I supply."
When not out on the water, Les might be found on a trail. He's a mountain biker, and the whole family also belongs to the Cape chapter of the Hash House Harriers which is, he says, the largest running club in the world. "Rather," he amends, "you could call it a beer-drinking club with a running problem."
Les sometimes serves his oysters first-hand at a private function raw bars and he suggests: "Try as many different kinds of oysters as you can get hold of, " he advises. "Don't worry about the freshness -- the shelf life of an oyster is months. On the Cape, you're not going to get an old one. Not eating oysters in months without an 'R' is just an old wives' tale now," he advises. "It's just that in Spring, they're growing like crazy and fattening up so they can spawn in mid-summer when the water gets to be around 70 degrees, so that's when they're at their very best."
And when you hear the expression "this oyster is really sweet," take it literally. "Oysters store sugar to get them through the winter," Les explains. "They won't freeze even if it's five below zero because of the sugar--it's like anti-freeze. And when you're harvesting, you'll find bees around you all the time!"
These are just some of the interesting facts shared by a shellfish farmer who's really been around.
Check Les' web-site: www.barnstableseafarms.net