Big fish

By HermineBloom

There are no strip malls, grocery stores or bustling city folk anywhere in sight. The constant buzz of an otherwise lively metropolis is reduced to silence, which surrounds the unimposing shack perched atop the 95th Street bridge, punctuated by frosty sailboats in the distance.

Kinetic energy is reserved for swanky downtown restaurants—the shiny dinnerware, silky tablecloths and an air of sophistication in the form of sickeningly sweet, expensive perfume. At Calumet Fisheries, 3259 E. 95th St., there are no tables and chairs—only one counter—and no waiters in prim uniforms or even a credit card machine, for that matter.

Fish served in a simple, white basket, freshly fried or cooked on-site in their smokehouse is Calumet’s specialty. So special, in fact, that the 62-year-old, family owned business is one of five honorees to receive the highest accolade in the food industry: the James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award.

Current owner Mark Kotlick remembers when his father Sid Kotlick and his uncle, Len Toll, opened the restaurant in 1948.

“If I only had a nickel every time somebody said ‘My dad used to take me here every day,’” said Kotlick, who is the head of operations at the restaurant and owns 50 percent of the business, along with his aunt.

Though he was aware that James Beard was a famous chef during the Julia Child era, Kotlick’s initial reaction to receiving the award was one of pure shock.

“I wanted to say, ‘Are you guys making the right choice here? Do you know what we are?’” Kotlick said. “As the lady explained, it made more sense to me.”

The America’s Classics Award was developed in 1998 and recognizes five restaurants for their timeless appeal and character that’s reflective of the community, said Willie Norkin, vice president of Culinary at Susan Magrino Agency. To qualify for the award, establishments must be in existence at least 10 years and be locally owned. Such spots are usually informal and moderately priced.

A committee of 17 people, composed of food critics and writers throughout the country, decide upon the winners of the award. In  addition, a Web site solicited entries for the award so other people were able to offer suggestions for who they believed should win, Norkin explained.

The smokehouse is a wooden shed on the side of the restaurant, where the fish take two days to cook, giving them their color and flavor, Kotlick said. Commercial fish is usually smoked in sausage smokers nowadays, a stainless steel, computer-controlled chamber that allows chefs to walk away.

“At Calumet, we’re with the fish the whole time,” Kotlick said. “We cut up the fish in the morning, put it in a salt brine, hang it on sticks, put it in the smokehouse to bake, and the doors are closed to kill the oxygen.”

Frying is also done on site using a secret batter, first introduced by Kotlick’s father and uncle back in 1948. Kotlick said their bread crumb batter and recipes for hot and mild sauce are unique to Calumet Fisheries.

Because the restaurant is strictly takeout, about 60-70 percent of business comes from orders of portable, fried seafood lunches. Whether it’s shrimp, smelt, frog legs, oysters or catfish, regulars are accustomed to eating in their cars or venturing to Calumet Park, where people generally have a picnic lunch, Kotlick said.

The local community remains a steady customer base for Calumet Fisheries. That is, until Anthony Bourdain’s film crew visited the South Side gem in his Chicago episode of “No Reservations.”

No sooner than the Travel Channel’s crew packed up its equipment, foodies from around the city were clamoring to get a taste of Calumet Fisheries’ smoked salmon and popcorn shrimp.

“Louisa Chu [former judge of ‘Top Chef’ and freelance journalist] described it best: ‘It’s destination smoke fish.’” Matt Kotlick said. “You’re pretty much coming for the food. You’re not coming to pick up groceries or go shopping. There’s no stores or anything by us. She coined the phrase.”

Due to the overwhelming, almost intimidating amount of press the restaurant received as a result of Anthony Bourdain, the homespun business flourishes amidst economic turmoil.

“I’d say it’s been a 70 percent increase of business,” said restaurant manager Carlos Rosas. “The very first weekend, we doubled our business. It just means that we work a little bit harder.”

Rosas, who received a cooking certificate from the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, has been the manager since May 2002, though he’s been working as a cook for 14 years.

Many employees, such as Rosas, will proudly admit that they’ve worked for Calumet Fisheries for many years.

“We would go to their birthdays and weddings; they are part of the family,” Kotlick said.

Long-term, well-established relationships with fish purveyors come in handy, too. Kotlick said many of them have been in business with Calumet Fisheries for 50 years, going so far as to open on a non-business day to provide them with more fish when they ran out the Saturday after Anthony Bourdain visited and, subsequently, after the James Beard award was announced.

John T. Edge, commentator, food writer and director of Southern Foodways Alliance, has for four years been a member of the restaurant committee that voted for Calumet Fisheries.

Specifically involved with the America’s Classics Award, Edge said the honor acknowledges the little guy who often times might get overlooked.

“I admire their long-time dedication to craft and artsmanship,” Edge said. “We think about food in ways that tend to isolate those foods from people who make those foods. Calumet is everyone’s type of food. They’re embraced by all.”

Still, Kotlick said he has no intentions of changing their downhome appeal, even after the media frenzy.

“We’re not trying to be a franchise,” Kotlick said. “We’re just a single independent store. It just works where we’re at. I’ve always thought that maybe one day we’d open one up north. But it’s my employees, the whole South Side tradition and the area just works. If there’s squeaky oil, you just oil it a little bit.”

The awards ceremony is planned for May 3 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.

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