The appetizer is a spread of smoked sturgeon from California. Savory subtlety. Scallops for the entrée come from Nantucket Bay. Served over pasta with a sauce of Parmesan butter, garlic, shallots, prosciutto and olive oil. Culinary cache.
The chefs are Wayne and Barbara, friends of our Beverly Shores buddies Mike and Denise. Seafood is courtesy of Bill Dugan, "The Fish Guy," owner of an eponymous establishment on Chicago's North Side. Bill sells wholesale to the city's best restaurants, retail to his loyal local customers and, once a week, hosts "Wellfleet," a limited-seating gourmet seafood dinner for upscale aficionados. He is also part of a Third Coast crowd that parties together most weekends. At our place in Bridgman, Al and Debbie's in Sawyer, Gina and Mike's in St. Joe, Bill's country house in Galien (with gal-pal Tracy), or here in Beverly Shores, where Wayne and Barbara are showcasing their culinary skills in case Bill needs kitchen backup at his weekly Chicago feasts.
Tonight's dinner works because Wayne and Barbara can cook. But equally important is the quality of the fish. And that's tricky. Get it fresh, cook it right and it's delicious. Ship it wrong or serve it a day late and it tastes like, ugh, fish! Which is why most Midwesterners, including me, are ambivalent about fish, having experienced the latter taste extreme often enough to be wary.
"The key," explains Bill, who knows how to get it right, "is three simple words: Catch. Bleed. Ice." Our evening fare, for instance—sturgeon and scallops—flown in from their respective catch points in a slushy seawater bath that's 32 or 33 degrees Fahrenheit. And kept in the same packing for the trip from Chicago to Mike and Denise's kitchen, where it's cooked almost immediately to maintain a right-out-of-the-ocean freshness and consistency.
Bill, "The Fish Guy," is a big, burly, 53-year-old with curly hair and a kindly round face. Visualize a gentle giant. He's from New England, but the family moved to San Francisco, where teenage Bill caught the "fish fever" from his Uncle Gene, who started shipping lobsters to Japan and Hong Kong in the late 1960s.
"When he came to visit us," Bill recalls, "I was intrigued with the thought of transporting fresh and live seafood by air." So Bill traveled to Maine, where he had family connections, and put together his first shipment. One of his earliest customers was Rene Verdon from Le Trianon, an esteemed `Frisco eatery.
"Rene was the Kennedy White House chef and he introduced me to Julia Child and James Beard," Bill continues. "Beard was at Fournou's Ovens in San Francisco, my dad's favorite restaurant, so it was a real thrill to take him and my mom there, where James doted over us and wouldn't take a dime for dinner. Pop was pretty impressed and felt a little better that I hadn't continued my 'formal' education, as I had promised. This was my education."
Bill's career took him to California's Wine Country, where he learned from the top chefs, worked in the best restaurants and opened his first seafood companies. Along the way, he says proudly, James Beard admitted that he preferred Bill's stuffed clam recipe to his own. Bill eventually tired of Wine Country because it was becoming too "Disneylandish" (but not, ironically, before he served Walt Disney's widow, among other Napa notables).
He moved back to SF to conceptualize restaurants for Nordstrom, including a caviar and champagne bar, and his travels eventually brought him to Chicago, where he decided to settle in, opening a wholesale company, Superior Ocean Products, that provides seafood to Alinea and Charlie Trotter's, among others. Four years later he opened his retail outlet, the Fish Guy Market, on Elston Avenue in Chicago, where people rave about lobster rolls, clamwiches and fish tacos.
Bill also sells a lot of Lake Michigan's fresh water catch, including walleye, perch, salmon, trout and whitefish. But he worries about fish environs everywhere. "I'm working on a production," he says, "that will educate folks about the state of our oceans, lakes and rivers, and what we can do to help retain the resources we still have. Our biggest challenge is to keep the water clean."
Meanwhile, his gastronomic philosophy is simple: "The best food," he says, "is what's in season as close to home as possible. Treat the product simply and be sure to enjoy it with people you love and care for."
A fish story. But not, thankfully, about the big one that got away. We're glad to have our big "Fish Guy" right here, curing our love/hate relationship with underwater creatures one fine feast at a time. Maybe Wayne and Barbara cooking one of his weekly gourmet dinners? Hoping to catch that one.