King of crabs
Robert Austin used to be called Lieutenant Austin, but now he’s known as Captain Bob. Yet, rather than a promotion, the new title came with a new career as the Sacramento area’s pre-eminent host of crab feeds.
Austin had a 30-year career in local law enforcement, first with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, then with the Sacramento Police Department. After retiring in 1991, this Rocklin resident bought a boat in Bodega Bay and worked as a commercial crab and salmon fisherman.
Weary of the long commutes, Austin sold his boat in 1999, but used his connections in the crab world and the unique crab preparation techniques he learned to go into business hosting crab feeds.
Since then, his reputation as the guy to go to if you want to throw a crab feed has grown considerably, helped out by a recent crab feed he threw for the Old Sacramento Citizens and Merchants Association, where attendees feasted on nearly 1,000 pounds of crab. It was the last big event of the crab season, which runs from November to March.
How’d you go from cop to crabman?
I was looking for something to do after I ended my career in law enforcement and I’d always loved the coast and loved fishing, so it became a natural attraction to buy my own boat, which I did.
You liked being a fisherman?
I loved it. It was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done and it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. It’s a great thrill to go out there in the fog and the rough seas and get your catch and come back in and say you made it at the end of the day. It’s an adrenaline rush.
Where does the adrenaline rush come from in crabbing?
You have to be a crab fisherman to appreciate it. It’s out there running the boat through heavy seas, bringing the pots up, and leaning over the side of the boat to bring them in while the boat is pitching and tossing and turning and there’s fog and weather and wind. Being able to run your entire line of 80 to 100 pots and you get all the product on board, and then coming back down the jetty, and knowing you did it. It’s a huge rush.
Why did you gravitate toward crabs?
I just had a friend of mine who was in the business and had a crab boat, so I used to volunteer to crew on it and it naturally evolved. I learned how to do it from him and decided to do it myself.
Were you a big crab lover before that?
I loved eating crab, but I’d never had any experience in crab fishing until [I started working with] my friend George McKinney, who is a Sacramento resident.
How did you make the transition from fishing to hosting crab feeds?
Again, I have to credit George McKinney. He taught me everything I know about the business. He had some crab pots and we used to cook them over there at Bodega Bay. He showed me how to do it, then I started doing it for friends and then it just grew into something I could do on a commercial basis. It started out small, but it’s just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger.
Two years ago, I did less than 1,000 pounds. Last year, I did 2,000 pounds. This year, I did 5,000 pounds. And next year, I’m projecting 7,000 pounds. Given that each crab is about two pounds apiece, that’s a lot of crabs.
I’ve definitely got a corner on the crab feed market, there’s no doubt about it. Nobody does crab the way I do, because I do it live. All other crabs are cooked first, frozen and then brought to the market and cleaned. I do it the other way around. I clean the crab first and then cook it.
Most people kill their crabs by dropping them in boiling water. How do you clean it before you cook it?
I have a breaker bar that I use to break their backs. Basically, I grab four legs of the crab in one hand and four legs in the other hand, and then I snap across the breaker bar. Then I get rid of the shell, the lungs and all the viscera, clean it all up, and we simmer that in seasoned salt water, so everything comes out pure, white and sweet.
Do you ever get pinched?
Oh yes! You can’t be in the crab business and not get pinched.
Why is the social dynamic at crab feeds so much fun?
I think it’s because it’s a fun event. It’s fun for me to put it on and we try to make it what I call the crab show. I try to get everybody to come out and see how the crabs are being processed and cooked and everybody has a drink or two and it just gets to be a fun event.
When I bring the crabs in, they’re hot. I mean you can pull them right out of the basket and these things are steaming hot and people just squeal, because they’ve never had crabs presented to them this way before. It’s fun for me to do and it’s fun to watch people’s faces when you bring in this huge basket of steaming hot crab.
What’s better: crabs or sex?
That’s a question I don’t want to answer, but it’s sex, obviously.
Fair enough. But is there any food better than crab?
I don’t think so.