A high-quality product for a reasonable price; that’s the aim of culinary smokehouse owner Siegfried Schön.
Schön, (German father, Dutch mother) grew up in Belgium, where he worked as a chef for fifteen years. In his free time, he smoked trout, eel and salmon in his garage. Now he is the owner of a smokehouse, Het Vishuis, with a production of 130 tons per year, and ready to expand.
He started his company six years ago, in a rented farmhouse in the Belgian countryside, with enough space for his industrial smokehouse. ”I have processing space and a fully automated smoker with a capacity of 350 kilos. By now I produce 130 tons of smoked salmon a year.”
“While working as a chef, I was already pulling in a considerable turnover from smoking salmon, eel and trout,” Schön continues. “That stimulated me to start my own company.”
Being a chef was a good basis for his company, says Schön. “I learned everything there is to know about handling salmon, including smoking.”
“We specialize in salmon, that is our main product. But we can smoke everything, and we have also smoked big fish like sturgeon, swordfish and halibut.”
As a chef, Siegfried Schön was obsessed by exclusive foods.
“I loved working with shell fish, caviar and, of course, salmon. Salmonids are beautiful creatures. I am fascinated by the combination of the mythical background of this fish and all the ways it is sold. Salmon is found in the industry, at supermarkets, delicatessens and artisanal smokehouses, and is on the menu of expensive restaurants. It’s a product that deserves special treatment, in my opinion.”
In the smokehouse a lot of activity is going on. While one of the workers is cleaning the fresh salmon in the processing space, another one is placing a rack in the smoker.
It’s not about mass production at Het Vishuis, says Schön.
“We are very well organized, with our small team of seven. We never say no to a customer, whether he wants one salmon fillet or a pallet. Service and quality, that’s our strength. When I am out fishing at the weekend – my other passion – and a customer calls, I take care of what he needs as soon as I can. I handle sales myself. We have our own vans for transportation and work with the Dutch logistic company De Koeijer for bigger loads.”
The location of his company, in the Belgian border village of Meer, is logistically perfect; says Schön. “It’s in Belgium, but close to the Netherlands. I have a lot of customers in both countries.”
He has found that there is a big difference between Dutch and Belgian customers. “Dutch customers want their salmon completely free of brown parts and are focussed on portioning and price. A regular fishmonger doesn’t sell his salmon at over 45 euro per kilo, because his customers will not pay that.”
“Belgian consumers are much more focussed on quality; they are gourmets,” he continues. “And they don’t mind paying as much as 75 euro or even more per kilo for a top-quality product. Also, they are able to appreciate a pure product, with skin or even bone. Belgian fishmongers slice their salmon by hand, and sell as much as 60 fillets a week.”
Siegried Schön supplies restaurants, hotels, caterers and fishmongers, but also wholesalers.
“My aim is to supply the higher echelon of restaurants, but at a very good price, therefore making it available to the middle class. Our best products are whole fillets, sliced and unsliced, natural or with special toppings, like wasabi and nori, seaweed and lime, whiskey and sandal wood, truffle or char siew and chili.”
This quality product is prepared in a traditional way, explains Schön. “The secret is in the salting and drying process. Our salmon is seasoned with sea salt, herbs and spices. We extract 30 percent of the fluid, leaving the salmon fillets beautifully deep red and solid.”
Cold smoking takes eight hours at Het Vishuis. During that time Schön uses twelve ventilation steps, in which new smoke is generated. The digital smoker has a separate smoke compartment, in which the very fine wood chips –oak, beech and ash wood – are burned. “The fine wood chips give a very mild smoke. That is why the smoking process takes so long.”
This method is usually only used by the more expensive smokehouses, says Schön. “Because of our efficient work process, we can deliver the same quality and be accessible as a result.”
His smoke oven, from the German company Reich, is one of the latest models and completely digital.
“We produce quality products with the comfort of current technology. I can program this oven from my cell phone if needed. It’s completely digital and fully automated. Everything is controllable: humidity, core temperature, smoke intensity…. I have had remarks about this oven, that it is not artisanal to smoke this way. But the craftsmanship of a smoker is in the whole process, especially the drying and salting. And, of course, the quality of the salmon is essential. Also, I wrote all the programs for the smoker. All of that together is how we distinguish ourselves.”
The salmon is mostly from Norway. “On request we, also smoke wild salmon, supplied by several Dutch companies, mostly from Urk.”
Siegfried Schön is very particular about the salmon he buys. “The salmon has to be handled with care. If I’m not satisfied with the salmon I get, I send it back or ask for a refund. It is blood, sweat and tears to build a company, so what you pay for should be good.”
The cold smoked salmon fillets are the foundation of the business. “We also do hot smoked salmon, but since 80 percent of the total production is cold smoked, that’s our raison d’etre.”
Additionally, Het Vishuis has about thirty other products, self-developed, like salmon petit fours, bundle salmon, salmon sausages and a large range of different marinated salmon filets.
For Schön the unstable salmon prices have been very troublesome. “Until 2015, the prices were fairly stable, but after that they almost doubled! I lost several big customers because of that, I almost went head under. It almost cost me my company. I only survived by maintaining my own price policy, and by cutting costs.”
“But, I am also glad that prices have increased to a good level. Otherwise salmon would become a kind of ‘chicken of the sea’. It’s such a beautiful and all round product, it deserves better than that; it should be treated with respect!”