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A Quest for Freshness at Hunts Point Fish Market

I've been on a five-year quest to bring the freshest seafood in America to Chicago. The East Coast, however, has proved a tough riddle to crack. So when my alarm sounded at 2:30 a.m., I had no problem rising. I was on my way to New York City's Hunts Point Fish Market to solve the puzzle.
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Usually, when I make the journey from Chicago to New York, I find myself slightly intoxicated, thoroughly fed and rather lost as I try to find my hotel at 2:30 in the morning. But at 2:30. a.m this morning I was in bed, the alarm erupting.

I spent a few years during my early cooking career trying to force ingredients into new forms and foreign shapes. During that time I tended to think the quality of a dish was directly related to its number of ingredients. After a few years wandering through this culinary 'yard sale,' I discovered that the key to great food was not the ego of the cook, but the quality of the individual ingredient. It was this discovery that led to the now detonating alarm.

I've been on a five year quest to bring the freshest seafood in America to Chicago. We ship wild king salmon, sand dabs and live Dungeness crab from Pier 35 in San Francisco. Red snapper, speckled trout and white shrimp make their way from the Gulf. Live spot prawns and red sea bream arrive from Japan weekly. The East Coast, however, has proved a tough riddle to crack. So when my alarm sounded at 2:30 a.m., I had no problem rising. I was on my way to New York City's Hunts Point Fish Market to solve the puzzle.

Nico is an upcoming brainchild of Paul Kahan and Donnie Madia. She will be an elegant yet rustic Italian seafood Osteria in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood. How they came to choose me as Nico's chef is unknown, but I found myself trudging to the Hunts Point Fish Market with that title upon my shoulders.

Paul, Donnie and I had eagerly made the trek to New York in search of fish. Now I found myself packed into the backseat of a car with both of them (side note: both gentlemen had slept through their alarms), on our way to the epicenter of America's seafood industry.

We are on a quest for freshness. It is common knowledge that to be good, fish must be fresh. What many don't know is just how fresh fish can be. In most of America's large cities you can find very good seafood. If we were to grade the seafood found in most of America's large cities, much of it would receive a 'B+' or even an 'A-', but in our case 'good' was not good enough. We were here, long before the crack of dawn, in search of America's best -- the kind of seafood that imprints taste on memory; the kind of seafood that can transport a diner from his seat in Chicago to a childhood memory on the shores of Maine. For seafood to achieve this, only the best will do.

With that goal in mind, we walked into Hunts Point. Jesus, the place is impressive. The market is essentially a cooler two city blocks long. Down the center of its long expanse lies a fork lift highway. On either side of the center road are stalls of varying size, frenzy and quality. 200 pound yellowfin tuna lay on the floor resembling polished bobsleds (it was early, okay). East Coast halibut, the poster child for seafood conservation, lay bright white belly side up showing off their sheen. And black bass, quite possibly my favorite fish, cover the market like -- well, excuse the Midwest in me -- corn at a Chicago farmers market in August.

Right away Paul and I think we have found it. We made a beeline to the first box of black bass we saw, and picked up a fish so stiff with rigor mortis that it seemed frozen mid-flop upon its captor's boat deck. At that moment a voice stopped us, our guide for the morning, Robert, introduced himself. "That one looks good," he said shrugging his shoulders with the fish in one hand, "but come over here." He walked us past box upon box of glistening red snapper, cod whose flesh looked like glass and Spanish mackerel stiff as knife blades, to a different stall. He dug into a box that only he knew about. Robert raised his eyebrows and smiled. "Remember the bass you both liked; now look at this one." In his hand was a fish so fresh that ocean had yet to leave its gills. "Yours was, well it was good, but this one is just about perfect." Robert's fish possessed all the attributes of the first, but it had more, it had the ability to evoke memory.

Standing there Paul, Donnie and I were in a strange state of shock. All we could do was shrug our shoulders and laugh. It was like listening to Band of Gypsys for the first time.

For the rest of the morning we walked through the market in a trance induced partially by the treasures that surrounded us, and partially by the need for caffeine. After a few very welcome hours of sleep, we made a crudo using Robert's hand-picked black bass, green market plums, fresh coriander, lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.

Nico opens in early December, and will feature a daily selection of the freshest crudo, antipasti, pasta and whole fish available. I don't know where, when or in what form Robert's black will appear on the menu, but it will be there, along with its friends from the Hunts Point Market. I will make sure of it, through hell or high water.