After a career in the restaurant industry—including 13 years at Maisonette, where she served tables and was a cellar master—Renée Koerner found herself at a crossroads wondering, What next? The answer: making caviar in Northern Kentucky.
This interview took place in April 2011, during which time Donna Covrett accompanied Koerner to her processing site and took part in Big Fish Farm’s first full harvest.
Donna Covrett: Why did you choose caviar over another “urban farming” product?
Renee Koerner: I spent my entire career in the food business. My husband managed country clubs, which moved us around, so every time we moved I got jobs in really good restaurants. Working in fine dining restaurants, I eventually got into wine. I was a server at Maisonette from 1987 until 2001. To get my foot in the door there I worked La Normandie lunches for three months, then moved upstairs to Maisonette. When Richard [Brown] was the maitre d’ I became a captain and got to do all the wine service, the carving, flaming, etc. It was so much fun. Those were good days. Then I became cellar master. Being part of Maisonette was such an important part of my life. Richard left, and I knew Jean-Robert was leaving, and honestly I just didn’t want to be there when the wheels fell off. To see it slip down that slope was too heartbreaking. I respected the Comisars, but the restaurant for me was Jean-Robert and Richard. Without them there I would have no reason to stay.
DC: Was this when the “what next” idea began to form?
RK: Exactly. My husband and I were in our early 40s, our daughter was in college, and we felt like it would be a good time to do something, to start a venture. Our connections were in the food business, so we were thinking along those lines. With my wine background I was thinking in terms of “from the ground up”—a sense of place. We wanted to stay in the Midwest, so we started asking ourselves “what is it about this place that’s special?” We wanted to do something here that couldn’t be easily replicated in China and done cheaper five years from now. We wanted something that gave a sense of terroir. So one year we were on vacation, following the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and ended up at the Kentucky State University, Kentucky’s agricultural school. They were just starting to do freshwater shrimp, which at first intrigued me until all of my chef friends talked me out of it, claiming it wasn’t a very good product. They’ve since worked out the kinks, but we didn’t think it would ever be more than a farmers’ market product, not something we could build a substantial business out of on a commercial scale. I wanted to do a product that I was proud of, but that could compete in the international market. So we ended up at KSU, with a man named Dr. Steven Mims. It’s been his life’s work to develop the technique for aqua-culturing American paddlefish.
DC: How large is the domestic market for caviar?
RK: There’s a huge domestic and international market. If everybody that grows fish in the United States were wildly successful, we still wouldn’t tap out the market. The seafood deficit in the United States is second only to imported oil. We eat way more seafood than we make.
DC: Raising domestic paddlefish seems to be a university-inspired industry…perhaps because there are so many waters getting fished out?
RK: Aquaculture sometimes gets a bad name. We [in the United States] pay more attention to standards than any other country in the world. China will flood a whole valley for aquaculture. They don’t care if there were people living there, they don’t have the same environmental concerns. There’s more cost to what I’m doing because land and labor are more expensive, and environmental restraints are tighter.
I spent my whole life in the restaurant business but had never eaten much caviar. In fact, I was a vegetarian most of my life. So I needed to know I could even do this. In the beginning I just wanted to be able to buy the caviar fish and focus on just making the caviar. But not many people were raising paddlefish. There was only one hatchery and he wanted a lot of money, a lot. We knew it was going to be expensive, but we didn’t want it to be stupid expensive, so we decided if we wanted to control costs and promote sustainable practices, we were going to have to learn the hatchery part of the business.
DC: You live in the heart of the city. So how did you learn to raise the paddlefish?
RK: Inspired by stories of people making wine in their garage, we initially thought, Let’s raise fish in the garage. We had about 500 fish in our garage, in a round above-ground pool. Neighbors would walk by, and thinking we were swimming in it, say “What a great idea to keep the pool in the garage!” We did that for one season.
DC: How long is a season?
RK: We spawned fish in April, and they are big enough to stock [a pond or lake] in September. So five months.
DC: Can you talk about your original investment?
RK: I kind of keep track of stuff like that, but I also kind of don’t because I don’t really want to know! The biggest investment is the time. Like any farm animal, you have to feed them every day. I lease my tank space in Ohio off of Route 50 [Koerner lives in Bellevue], so it’s a bit of a drive every day.
DC: Is part of your long-term plan to have your own tank and processing plant nearby?
RK: Yes. I really would like it all more right in my own backyard. I will always have to contract some out, because I will never own enough water to do what I want to do.
DC: This has been your first big harvest, the real test of whether you’re cut out for this.
RK: Yes, and I’ve learned so much. Everyone who has come down here [to the processing plant in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky] has had an idea for me. Everything about caviar is usually so secretive—we made a conscious choice to be wide open. There are a couple of things that we do in the process that are proprietary, but otherwise we really like teaching people about it.
We invite a lot of food people and culinary professionals doing down here. Chef Jean-Robert de Cavel, Jay Erisman from The Party Source, Amy Tobin, Chef Julie Francis, and Richard Brown are just a few. I’ve benefited from their knowledge and expertise, and they’ve learned something from us as well. Even my daughter has contributed a lot of great ideas: What if we chill the bowls before we mix it? What if we add lemon to the water?
DC: So what is the secret to making great caviar?
RK: The only added ingredient to caviar is salt. When salt is added and stirred in to the roe by hand, it breaks down the membranes and the eggs release all their liquid, resulting in a somewhat soupy mass. The eggs then re-absorb part of the solution.
But the process is a lot like wine. You know the saying that “Wine is made in the vineyard”? We feel that a lot of the work is done in the growing out, but still we don’t want to screw it up once we get it into the processing room. We spent a long time tasting and testing different kinds of salt. Salt is the only thing that changes it, so we’ve even considered a caviar sampler featuring different salts. There are really only three kinds of salt in the world. There’s sea salt, mountain salt, and Jurassic Period mined salt. It’s like using different barrels on wine. The best salt in the world, which all the Russian caviar was made from, was from the Lunenberg mine in Germany. The Lunenberg family closed the mine 10 to 20 years ago, so the caviar industry was forced to find and test new salts. The wine background was really helpful because essentially wine makes itself but there is so much variation in the quality…the devil is in the details. For example, we don’t wear latex gloves, so we constantly wash our hands to keep them super clean. We don’t want pieces of latex to get in the product, plus it’s more difficult to tell when gloves are dirty. We also don’t use any lotion or scented soap so as not to leave any traces of scent or taste. So we rinse really well, and do a final rinse with vodka.
DC: When did you know you had found the right mixture of salts?
RK: When I first began making caviar, I spent a lot of time testing it. I gave it to Russian people, to people in fine dining, and to chefs. The Russians thought I was pulling a fast one: Why are you giving us Russian caviar and saying you made it? I knew then I was on to something.
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