Smelt Like Home
I’ve seen chefs run into their garden to pick my dinner, I’ve seen poultry slaughtered moments before driving off with it, but I had never seen—or heard of—a chef cooking his nightly specials with fish he had caught himself. In the middle of winter, through a hole in some frozen river, no less.
Until Tuesday, when a cryovacked package of shiny little fish landed on my desk. They were caught by chef Tim Wiechmann, who owns the much-buzzed-about T.W. Food in Cambridge, Mass. Every Saturday night after dinner service, Wiechmann’s sous chef, Tru Lang (and, occasionally, Wiechmann), drives up to Bowdoinham, Maine to spend the cold night ice fishing for smelt, a delicious, sardine-sized fish found mostly in the Great Lakes and the salty mouths of New England rivers. What Lang catches—“as few as 6, as many as 500,” Wiechmann said—he brings back to the restaurant, where they are fried and served whole or pickled en escabeche.
I grew up in a part of Minnesota where ice-fishing shacks outnumber houses in some towns. (Remember Grumpy Old Men? The actual frozen Hooverville filmed in the movie was only a couple of miles down the Mississippi from my home.) And we had smelt, too: In the springtime, we’d catch them at night by the net-full as they swam from their spawning grounds back out to Lake Superior. But I had never heard of ice fishing for tiny smelt—that’s dedication.
Ice fishing is a sport (yes, they have competitions) divided into two camps of participants. You have your stationary fisherman, who spend most of their leisure time from November through March in a miniature wooden house outfitted with a heater, gas-powered ice auger, portable television, and case upon case of Leinenkugel’s beer. Then you have your hardcore anglers, who drag their 5-gallon buckets (they make good seats) and hand-cranked ice augers around the lake, seeking out the best spots and weathering the harsh elements. Wiechmann and Lang (and myself) are of the former camp; Marcia Kiesel, our fearless test kitchen supervisor, is of the latter. She knew just how to handle our smelt: A quick dredge in flour, a dip in hot oil, a sprinkle of salt and lemon juice. One bite for the head, another for the body and, for dessert, the crispy tail.