Smoked Fish and Tradition at Calumet Fisheries, Part 1

By Anthony Todd in Food on Nov 3, 2010 4:00PM

"We've been doing this so long, we move like ballroom dancers," declared Mundo Campos, smoker and chef of Calumet Fisheries. The co-owner, Mike Kotlick, agrees. "Not much has changed around here, and we like it that way," he said of his 60-year old business. Calumet Fisheries, opened in 1928 and owned by Kotlick's family since 1948, is a perfect example of a business that has found its place in the world. Producing some of the best smoked salmon, chub, shrimp and trout that we have ever had, using time-honored methods and selling directly to customers, Calumet fisheries is a true Chicago treasure. Located at the foot of the 95th street bridge, the location of the Blues Brother's famous jump, visiting Calumet Fisheries feels like stepping back in time to a moment when river traffic was the heart of Chicago's economy and smoked fish was a dinnertime staple.

When we arrived at 6:45, Campos was "pinning" Lake Michigan chubs - affixing them to a long wooden plank with spikes, so the fish could hang freely in the smokehouse. The fish brine overnight before being hung, and we arrived on the second day of the process, the actual smoking. According to Kotlick, Lake Michigan Chub is their most popular offering, but because of declining stocks, it's getting harder and harder to get. So, they smoke it when they can buy it from fishermen in Wisconsin, and the rest of the time the focus is on salmon and trout. They will smoke other fish, including sable and sturgeon, if a customer orders them in advance. Salmon is broken down before brining, and a thick needle is used to "string" the salmon - rather than being pinned, the salmon is hung by strings. The whole fish is smoked, from the head to the tail, the smoked heads used as a popular soup ingredient. On the day we visited, a customer had ordered an entire smoked salmon - a bargain that we plan to indulge in.

The original smokehouse, black with decades of use, was already being stoked up when we arrived. Campos builds fires in the bottom of the smokehouse, and when all the fish are prepared, they are hung in the house. The fish are first cooked over the open flame with the doors open. Once the fish are done, a condition judged by the instinct of the smoker rather than any modern technology, the doors are closed and the fish are allowed to smoke until they absorb extra flavor and color. Our favorite offering is rubbed with peppercorns and garlic before it is smoked, adding an extra kick.

Tomorrow, in part two, we will discuss Calumet Fisheries' retail operation, their encounter with Anthony Bourdain, the James Beard foundation, and why they have the best fried shrimp in the city of Chicago. Stay tuned!