Mental picture: you step out of the shower, slip on some flip-flops and walk out the door and into near-freezing Chicago winter-time weather. It’s cold. Now, let’s have a big shiver and transfer that feeling over to what it feels like to be a full-time fish butcher in the 36- to 38-degree fish processing room at Riva Crab Shack on Navy Pier.
From the water to the kitchen and to your table, every bit of aquatic life we serve is a product of meticulous work on the part of our own Chef Luigi Garcia and his staff–beginning with the two heroes who work in the icy throes of the fish room daily: Jorge Munoz and Maria Lema.
From in-season Columbia River wild salmon and soft shell crab to the variously-sized lobsters hanging out in our large lobster tank for your viewing pleasure, we take our seafood seriously.
Perhaps the part of the process that most exhibits our commitment to all things seafood is the work of Munoz and Lema. These full-time fish butchers break down whole product into a number of very specific products, which are then prepped and cooked by Chef Luigi and his well-trained staff. “Having this dedicated, temperature-controlled room to process our seafood is very important,” says Chef Garcia. “It means we control our product every step of the way–except for pulling it out of the water.”
You’ll see quite a bit of knife work on display when Jorge and Maria go to work. He’s been on serious seafood slicing detail since 1995 and Maria since 2007, so they often make a difficult job look very easy.
We’re talking about butchering fish here; it takes a deft, sure hand. For instance, tuna is a very difficult fish to process correctly, but is a specialty at Riva. There are a number of unique cuts that must be made to use a whole tuna effectively and efficiently–sashimi-style, long cuts for filets and another for tartare. “We take a lot of items out of one tuna,” says Garcia, noting each one weighs in at 60-80 pounds–though they’ve come through the door up to 200 pounds in size. Speaking of jumbo items, our King Crab comes direct from Alaska, right off the boat. If you like your crab legs large and dripping with meat, we’ve got you covered.
Same with lobster: we usually have a wide range of lobster sizes available, from 1.5 to three pounds, or more–and customers are welcome to choose their own. “I like to have a huge lobster in the tank,” says Frank D’Angelo, our GM at Riva. “A huge lobster like that is just interesting to look at and we eventually end up cooking it.”
Our seafood comes direct from–mostly–Hawaii, Boston and Seattle. Local purveyors are also used for specialty items or to fill in where needed. “We buy the fish whole and then utilize everything, including the bones [for fish stock],” says Chef Garcia.
“You don’t want to overcook [your lobster], not for more than 12 minutes–for the most part. Also, I like to boil them first and then finish them in the oven.”
Like so many commodities these days, wholesale seafood prices are through the roof–all the more reason to keep the process efficient and prices reasonable for our customers. We do that by everything we’ve talked about here, controlling as much of the sea-to-table process as possible and getting it to your table at the best price possible.
When we say seafood is our thing, we mean it–nose to tail.
© 2018 Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants
Photography by Nick Ulivieri