Following is the first in a series of oral histories from the people featured in the book Faces of a Fish Empire. Juan Carrasco attended the gallery opening of my Dad’s photography exhibit and remembered the following story. (You can read the second one here.)
“I started working at Empire Fish Company filling smoked fish orders and other items kept in the cooler, different type of cheeses. I weighed the fish or cheese and jotted down the weight on the wrapper along with the name of the restaurant or wherever that product was going and the orders would then go on a wooden cart. The driver included these items on his delivery run with all of the other products that Empire Fish supplied.
Then there was the opportunity to scale fish. We would go into the other cooler where the fresh fish was stored on ice. We would drag the boxes of whole fish out to the processing table to scale them. Then we rinsed the fish and passed them along to the guys who filleted the fish.
I was taught to be really careful with the whitefish when you scaled it. It is a very delicate, soft fish. Then there was walleye, red snapper, halibut, mahi-mahi…Goodness gracious! There were special order fish as well: perch, smelt and so on.
I was intrigued with the men that filleted the fish. You had the knife in hand … I guess this was the challenging part, whether I wanted to learn how to do it. You had to portion that fish once you filleted the fish. So, you would cut a piece of that fish to the specified weight that the restaurant was calling for, 6 ounces for example. You would have to know how to do that if you were to get to that fillet table.
I got it in my heart one day that I was going to ask if I could come on in and learn how to fillet fish (over my lunch hours). That’s when I became friends with Tho Duc who didn’t speak very much English. He befriended me and gave me pointers on how to fillet fish. [Tho was a fisherman in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. When the U.S. Marines took over his boat, he emigrated to the U.S.]
Then one day, one of the lead guys, his name was Little John, he came in and he saw me at the table when he was coming back from his lunch hour. I was cleaning up and he says, “Forget about it, you’ll never be one of us. Just don’t even think about it, you’ll never be able to accomplish this.” In hindsight, it wasn’t as disheartening as it could have been but I kept bellying up to the table and practicing and practicing.
I kept watching Tho showing me [how to fillet fish]. I actually would go right by him and I would mimic his moves. He was an artist when it came to the filleting that perch for sure. Very efficient at it. So, I guess I had a good teacher there by default that was standing at the fillet table with me.
And then, one afternoon I asked Jerry Kutchera [the owner of Empire Fish and manager of the production room] if it would be okay if I could show him the knowledge that I had gained at the fillet table. He said, “Sure, show me.” So, of all things I started with a smelt, a very small, delicate fish which is kind of ridiculous to fillet.
So, I have this little, probably like, four-inch long smelt sitting in front of me. And I took this huge knife and I butterfly filleted it. I laid it out there and I’ll never forget Jerry’s exact words: “What are you doing here? You should be a brain surgeon.” He says, “You know what, I don’t see any reason why we can’t get you on this table.” Then right there he was convinced and I was able to get a pay raise and the following day, when I approached that table you should have seen the surprise from the very guy – Little John – who said that I would never be able to fillet fish.
Oh yeah, it was quite the quiet experience. It was humbling and a little nerve wracking at the same time. I could sense Little John’s aggression. Just constantly negative, negative, negative. I guess I brought a little joy to the fillet table with my personality.”
As told to Joe Kutchera by Juan Carrasco on January 19, 2017 at Colectivo Coffee