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The Grub Game

Fine Kettles of Fish

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One recent Saturday morning at the Fishguy Market--a two-year-old store on a dusty stretch of Elston in Albany Park--silvery John Dory lay gleaming alongside rich, meaty sturgeon steaks, pearly Belon oysters, plump, pink diver scallops handpicked from the ocean floor, and some bluefish owner Bill Dugan had just smoked that morning. On any given day Dugan might have 20 or 25 different items in stock, such as salmon, sushi-grade tuna, grouper, flounder, Prince Edward Island mussels, cockles, clams, and up to five varieties of oyster.

If you ask, Dugan will tell you exactly how to cook them--or he'll sell you a handcrafted entree like seafood paella, crab cakes, or stuffed trout. One of the in-house chefs can also make you something to order. "Just about anything that can be done with seafood, we do it," he says.

Dugan has spent the past 25 years, on both coasts and in between, immersed in every aspect of the fish business. He's worked as a wholesaler, retailer, smoker, shipper, supplier, and restaurateur. He's farmed sturgeon and made caviar, and even operated a trawler for a while. Get him going and he'll give you a lesson in oceanography and the diets that can make one grouper taste better than another. He's even impacted industry nomenclature, repositioning blackfish as the more appealing "blueberry bass" and coining the term "diver scallops" to distinguish the firm but tender hand-harvested bivalves from their grittier mass-gathered cousins.

Boston-born and Long Island-bred, Dugan wound up in the Bay Area, working construction, at 17. "I was strictly a peanut butter and jelly guy then," he says.

But by the time he was 19 he'd gone into business with his brother, who ran a market and restaurant called Dugan's Lobster Trap that, over the years, attracted customers such as Julia Child and James Beard. While his brother ran the restaurant (and opened a second spot), Dugan got into the wholesale business, flying shipments of high-grade fish and shellfish to San Francisco each morning from the east coast and distributing to restaurants all across the city and up the Napa Valley to Calistoga (where he eventually moved). Along the way he made friends with dozens of talented chefs who were putting California cuisine on the culinary map. "It was a great time," he says. "I learned a lot about food. I learned from the chefs' requests."

In the mid-80s he bought a smoker and split his business between fresh and smoked fish, but shortly afterward he was bought out by a Swedish firm engaged in sturgeon farming, which put him in charge of marketing operations. Tired of the Napa Valley, he relocated to Chicago and, in 1989, launched a new wholesaling business, Superior Ocean Produce. He's kept the city's fine restaurants--Ambria, Spiaggia, Charlie Trotter's--swimming in fresh, premium fish ever since. In 1998 he decided to open a retail store as well, and consolidated his outfit in a new location on Elston, near where he lives with his wife, Stephanie, and 15-year-old son, Adam.

The walls of the Fishguy Market are hung with so many huge stuffed fish it looks like a piscine hunting lodge. Among them is an immense freeze-dried lobster and the head of a ferocious 600-pound black bass, mouth agape, looking like a candidate for a cameo in Jaws. Up front behind a counter is a big industrial stove and steamer where Dugan and his staff make the take-home dishes and guest chefs such as John Manion (Mas) and John Coletta (Caliterra) give cooking lessons.

The real action is in the warehouse in the back, with its loading dock, long work tables, and 2,000 square feet of refrigerator space. Every morning, coffin-sized cardboard crates filled with refrigerant and lined with Styrofoam and plastic sheeting arrive from points ranging from Fiji to Maine and Alaska to New Zealand. One crate might contain dozens of amberjack, another a 150-pound bass. All the fish come in whole and are cut into fillets and steaks right there. "A lot of wholesalers get their fish already cut up," says Dugan, "but it stays fresher this way."

He receives six to eight tons of fish every week-- including a ton of tuna and 1,500 pounds of salmon. Little goes to waste. The trimmings are used for stocks or preparations such as seafood sausage and fish cakes. Items that don't sell in a day are frozen and put to similar use, and he often donates what's left over to the Little Sisters of the Poor. This year the wholesale business grossed $2.5 million, the retail store about $500,000.

"I think my strongest point in this phase of my career is I've learned a lot and I've got knowledge to impart if people choose to ask," says Dugan. Next on his agenda: putting together a TV show on fish and how to cook it, featuring himself and an all-star cast of chefs. He's hoping to shoot a pilot by next year.

The Fishguy Market is at 4423 N. Elston, 773-283-7400. On Tuesdays all items normally priced above $10 per pound--such as $16.95 diver scallops or $14.95 yellowfin tuna--are sold for a flat $10 a pound.

--Don Rose

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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