Following whitefish, the appetizing staple, from the Great Lakes to Greenpoint’s Gem Street smoker

Currently hanging in Greenpoint: Whitefish. ()
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The ritual of Sunday-morning bagels and smoked fish is deeply etched into the consciousness of many a New Yorker.

The lure of the appetizing shop, or, more commonly, the bagel store, is familiar: whole sides of ruby-colored smoked salmon, tubs of floppy pickled herring, a platter of gold-skinned whitefish, head and tail attached. It’s a nostalgic relic of old city life, a pungent throwback to last century’s Jewish immigrants.

It’s tempting to believe that each store enlists a team of persnickety old-timers to cure and smoke all that fish in-house, but the reality is that most of the city’s supply comes from one place: Acme Smoked Fish.

Nearly a century old, Acme is the largest smoked-fish producer in the country, processing up to eight million pounds of fish every year. The company sells its own line of smoked salmon, whitefish, sable, herring, and more to restaurants, delis, supermarkets, and bagel shops across the country, and wholesale to dozens of stores, from Zabar’s to Costco.

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And Acme does nearly everything by hand, in a squat brick warehouse just minutes from the bustle of Williamsburg.

While smoked salmon, both traditional and gussied up with special flavors (pastrami spices, mesquite rub), is Acme’s marquee offering, their undersung masterpiece is hot-smoked whitefish, a fish smaller and arguably less appealing to the mainstream bruncher. Whitefish are weird: long and skinny, with a crinkly gold skin, they’re usually displayed whole, complete with dead-eye stare, or ground up into a chunky mayo-based salad. The meat is white, firm, and smoky—altogether, quite delicious—but it’s all too often overlooked in favor of more eye-catching offerings.

And the whitefish requires particular skill in handling.

"With whitefish, you can’t hide anything," Gabriel Viteri, a vice president at the company, told me when I visited Acme last week. "It’s all about the process—the brining, drying, and smoking."

For a relatively small fish (the largest weigh only 4 pounds, and 1 to 2 pounds is more typical), the whitefish process involves many highly trained hands.

It starts, as all seafood does, with the fishermen. Acme depends on a handful of family-owned fisheries in the Great Lakes for all of its whitefish; in contrast, much of the salmon they use is farm-raised and imported from South America.

"We’ve been working with these fishers for over 30 years," Viteri said. "We are their livelihood. We’ve gone so far as to help them buy nets during tough times so they can fish for us."

Twice each week nearly 50,000 pounds of fish are delivered in the predawn hours to the warehouse on tiny Gem Street in Greenpoint, packed neatly into 25-pound cardboard boxes. Though the fishermen gut and separate the fish into weight grades by law, half a dozen Acme employees do it all over again upon arrival, opening each box, sifting through all of the fish, and discarding any that are less than perfect.

"We look for meaty, fatty whitefish—you want one that’s round in the middle, so you know they’re well-fed," Viteri said.

The fish are then cleaned again by hand and separated into size categories—the smallest whitefish are destined to be ground into salad, while the medium, large, and jumbo ones will be sold whole or in 6-to-8-ounce chunks. The separating and cleaning is not glamorous work—galoshes-clad employees wade through piles of bloody, icy fish with rough efficiency—but it is integral to the quality of the finished product.

After the separators have finished, 400-pound batches of whitefish are transferred into soaking tubs fitted with a pipe that continuously pumps fresh water over them for still more cleaning. After half an hour in the tubs, the employees overflow the water onto the floor, which is constantly wet, and replace the lost volume with a saltwater brine, made from dissolved M & M-sized granules called solar salt. The fish will soak in the brine for 12 to 24 hours, bobbing until their flesh is steeped with salt.

Once the fish are brined, they’re hung upside-down by the tail on a large rack with metal hooks. A team of employees moves in warp-speed, grabbing handfuls of the fish and sliding each one onto a prong. When they’re finished, the fish are neatly arranged in rows on a rolling rack about eight feet tall and put into a 38-degree refrigerator room to dry.

"The drying helps redistribute the salt throughout the fish," Viteri said. If the salt doesn’t spread evenly across the fish, it won’t smoke properly: some flesh will dry too much and become brittle, while other parts can turn mushy.

After four to 12 hours in the fridge, the fish is finally ready for smoking. Acme employs two smokemasters, Aftabudin Rayman and Peter Wojick, to oversee the walk-in ovens, which are capable of holding up to 8,000 pounds of fish at once. Guyanese native Rayman has been at Acme for nearly 30 years, just the fourth smoker in the company’s history.

Although the ovens are computer-controlled, Rayman and his protégé Wojick babysit every minute of the eight-hour smoking cycle, gently squeezing the fish every hour and adjusting the temperature and smoke levels accordingly. They take into account all variables a computer cannot, like the weather; on a humid day, for example, the fish will need longer to dry than normal, while wintertime temperatures call for more smoke. Rayman is 66 years old, but shows no signs of slowing down.

Elevating the temperature slowly is critical when smoking. The natural smoke is created from hardwood chips (a mix of birch, cherry, and maple), which Rayman and Wojick periodically replenish. To ensure that the fish cooks through but remains silky and succulent, the smoke and heat are carefully monitored by computer-controlled thermometer and human touch.

The oily skin heats up fastest, puffing out into a crinkly gold shell. The air around the giant ovens is warm and fragrant, like a seaside campfire. 

The finished products are beauties indeed; glistening and tender, they give off a faintly smoky aroma. The pearlescent flesh beneath the burnished skin is moist and juicy, flaking off easily into meaty lumps. From this point, the fish can go several ways. The largest fish will be left whole and shipped off to bagel stores and appetizing shops in one piece; smaller fish are sold as chunks or ground into salad.  

Whitefish aficionados can purchase the fish straight from the source at Acme’s "Fish Fridays," every Friday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., the only time the company sells directly to the public (at wholesale prices, no less).

Though the adventure of shopping at a fish-filled brick warehouse is certainly worth a trip, perhaps a finer pleasure is the Sunday morning appetizing-shop experience, a New York tradition in no danger of disappearing if Acme keeps those smokers going.

Acme Smoked Fish is located at 30 Gem Street (near North 15th Street) in Brooklyn.

 Ed. note: Photos by Jamie Feldmar, except for warehouse exterior, by James Boo (click here for a great post about a visit to the warehouse store.)