Sunday, August 10, 2003

Food Stuff

American media hooked on Kentucky's king of caviar

Now maybe now they'll take Lewis Shuckman and his caviar seriously.

For more than five years, the owner of Shuckman's Smoked Fish Co. in Louisville has been trying to convince chefs to buy his Spoonfish caviar, harvested from paddlefish, a long-snouted, prehistoric-looking creature that swims the rivers and lakes of Kentucky.

Convincing chefs to buy something other than pricey Caspian Sea caviar - the famed beluga, sevruga and osetra taken from sturgeon - hasn't been easy.

"I got thrown out of a lot of kitchens," Shuckman says.

But after the events of the last three weeks, chefs may start rolling out the red carpet for the high-energy, chatty fish man.

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• To mail-order: (888) 990-8990 or
On July 20, The New York Times featured a front-page story on the rising popularity of paddlefish and other American caviar. The reporter focused most of the story on Shuckman, including a photo of his caviar tin on the front page so large anyone could read his phone number. Shuckman had no idea the story would be featured so prominently.

"My mom called me that morning at 7:30 because a friend called her about it," he says. "Two people I didn't even know brought copies of The New York Times to my house."

Taste test on TV

The next day, a producer from ABC's Good Morning America called to ask him to send caviar to New York.

"I heard Diane Sawyer (show co-host and Louisville native) brought in a copy of the Times and told the producer they should do a story," Shuckman says.

The producer planned to have the morning show anchors compare his caviar (about $15 per ounce) to the Caspian fish roe (as much as $87.50 per ounce). They did just that on July 30, when host Charlie Gibson announced he "liked" the Spoonfish caviar.

The media blitz continued: ABC's Louisville affiliate did stories about Shuckman's caviar appearance on GMA.

Bon Appetit editors called later to say they want to do a story for the magazine's November issue.

Monday, the Food Network phoned to order caviar for Wolfgang Puck, who plans to use it in an upcoming episode of his show.

The mercurial Shuckman has flirted with the limelight before - in USA Today and in regional publications (the Enquirer featured a story on Shuckman in 1999). But nothing like this media deluge.

"I'm speechless," Shuckman says. "And you know for me, that's saying something."

What makes it even sweeter is he didn't plan it. The Times reporter called Shuckman out of the blue to tell him he was writing a story on American caviar. Shuckman told him a group of Ukrainian businessmen were coming to tour his operation the next day. The reporter flew to Louisville overnight to make the tour. Then he watched the group of 35 businessmen gobble 5 pounds of caviar and 20 pounds of Shuckman's smoked fish while downing a half-dozen bottles of vodka and bourbon.

The scene made great photos and a colorful story - good enough for the front page of the Sunday Times. Good Morning America and the rest of the coverage fell into place, giving Shuckman more than his proverbial 15 minutes.

"This guy I didn't even know stopped his car in front of my house the other night and just yelled: Congratulations," he says.

Flood of business

The exposure has yielded more than celebrity for Shuckman. The morning after the Times story ran, his Web site collapsed from the number of orders. The week of July 28 - usually one of the slowest for caviar sales - Shuckman sold more than 50 pounds of the Spoonfish roe - 400-plus 2-ounce tins. It was the most profitable week for the company since his grandfather opened his grocery in 1919.

Shuckman grew up helping his late father grind hamburger, cut steaks and smoke ham. The Shuckmans shifted their focus to smoked trout and other fish in the early 1990s, after Kentucky began encouraging farmers to farm fish instead of tobacco. Shuckman started processing Spoonfish caviar in 1998 (this year Shuckman trademarked the product name "Spoonfish."), at the urging of Jim Gerhardt, executive chef of the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in Louisville.

Jean-Robert de Cavel, then chef of the Maisonette, was another early fan of Shuckman's caviar. The Frenchman has offered the American roe at his restaurant, Jean-Robert at Pigall's, since he opened downtown last August. He also served it during a special dinner at the James Beard House in New York July 30 - and that was planned long before the wave of Spoonfish publicity.

Despite the bump in business, Shuckman plans no changes at his small business on Louisville's west side. He employs only two drivers. The rest of the staff are Shuckmans: his mother, Beverly; wife, Vickie; 21-year-old daughter, Lauren; and 15-year-old twin daughters, Shannon and Whitney.

"I attribute our success to a lot of hard work as a family and our determination to make things happen," Shuckman says humbly.

And he does welcome calls from all those chefs who have kicked him out of their kitchens.


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