Renee Koerner, the first female assistant maitre d’ at Maisonette, left the storied establishment to cultivate her own caviar. Her goal as a figurehead in the Midwest’s rising international prominence as a producer is to debunk the snobbery associated with the salty foodstuff.
Koerner launched Big Fish Farms in 2003. Using centuries-old methods, she harvests caviar from American paddlefish. The process starts with fostering quarter-inch-sized hatchlings in tanks; over five months, they grow into 18-inch fingerlings. The young’uns are moved to lakes, where they are left alone for 10 years, until the females reach maturity. Gorging on a diet of zooplankton, the fish reach almost 5 feet in length and typically weigh around 40 pounds. “When animals can live a more natural life, their eggs are tastier and more complex,” she says. Koerner fishes the mature paddlefish out and brings them back to her farm in Bethel. She extracts 2 pounds of pinhead-sized “berries,” as they are called, per fish. The membranes are removed with a sieve, leaving the pristine spheres ready to be cured in Jurassic salt, then packed in vacuum-sealed tins.
Those who grew up eating caviar (in Russia and Iran, for example) don’t wait for a special occasion to crack open a tin. Koerner, who sells her delicacy to Orchids, Mita’s, and Restaurant L, and to the public through her website, would like to see it become more commonplace here, too. Her everyday caviar snack? “My husband and I eat it on potato chips,” she says.
Big Fish Farms, 2696 Bethel-New Richmond Rd., Bethel, (513) 233-5909