Courtesy of JWKPEC Photography

Seafood Platter with shrimp cocktail, oysters, crabmeat avocado, lobster cocktail, and king crab.

Hugo’s Chef Russell Kook Talks Prepping Fish at a Classic Restaurant

When your line gets tight, it’s a euphoria feeling. You don’t know what’s on the other end: a tuna, a snapper, a grouper? In a lake, you have a bass or a walleye, but in the ocean you could come out with anything.

Known for his “less is more” approach to cooking, Chef Kook talks about the alternative techniques for preparing fish that he’s introduced to Hugo’s, a $14 million restaurant that just celebrated its 20th anniversary.

Courtesy of Galdones photography

Russell Kook  

Executive Chef, Hugo's Frog Bar & Fish House, Chicago

Age: 36 

Big Catch: A 4-foot-long hammerhead shark.

Essential Tool: Black cast iron pan, typically 10-inch.

Favorite Offcut: Cheeks—cod, halibut, grouper, even beef or pork. 

Favorite Fish to Eat: Walleye

Top-Selling Fish: Chilean Sea Bass

Kitchen Smarts: Our Bookbinder's Soup cut fish waste by 60 percent.

Halibut season is coming up so we’re working with our local vendor to get the T-bone. There’s a center bone in the halibut, like a spine, so if you take a band saw and cut the fish in half, straight across, you have a steak with the bone in the center of it. When you grill fish on the bone it ends up more moist and supple. 

Another advantage is that it’s the large center bone—not all those little fish bones—so it’s like eating a New York Strip. The key is getting a nice rustic char on the outside, using a nice earthenware plate, and serving the halibut simply prepared: We coat it in olive oil and a little lemon zest, then char it real hard on the grill, and pop it in the oven to finish it. It may take a solid eight minutes to cook. Two minutes each side on the grill, then four minutes in the oven on high—just because you want everything close to that bone to get hot. 

We also serve a lot of walleye that we get locally from Lake Superior. It’s prepared with an herb mixture and blended breadcrumb topping, sautéed in the pan with a little lemon butter sauce. It’s simple, but it’s all about the fish—no garnish, nothing gimmicky, just a great piece of fish.  

And we’re doing a lot with offcuts, especially cheeks, which have a great amount of fat that keeps the fish more soft and supple. The cheeks take to breading, to braising, and to simple sautéing.  They’re just so flexible and, depending on the fish, you could have fish cheeks the size of a quarter to fish cheeks that are the size of your hand, like with a halibut.   

It’s hard to reinvent the wheel—we’re just trying to make the classic preparations better and execute them better as a restaurant. The Miso Marinated Chilean Sea Bass, with a little soy butter sauce and Hon Shimeji Mushrooms is very straightforward, and something the cooks can replicate consistently. 

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