‘Salmon is part of my identity’

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American Frank Heyn started his first smokehouse in Amsterdam 17 years ago. Last month he opened a fancy new shop and restaurant with the same name: Frank’s Smokehouse.

The story of Frank’s Smokehouse began a long time ago in Baltimore, Maryland, where Frank Heyn lived as a young boy, and where his grandfather used to take his grandchildren on outings, and afterwards out to dinner.

“He would often take us to a Deli, where I always had smoked salmon. It was my favourite food! My passion for food started with smoked salmon.”

Frank Heyn and his son Thomas, who works as a chef in the new restaurant.

Frank Heyn studied engineering, but when he began working as an engineer, his heart wasn’t in it. “So I left for Paris to study at the Cordon Bleu Culinary institute.”

While studying in Paris, he met a Swedish woman. “She took me to Sweden. That’s where I started smoking fish as a hobby, with a simple stove-top smoker.”

After the couple moved to Amsterdam, Frank Heyn started working there as a chef in a small restaurant. He continued his hobby, smoking fish for family and friends.

“After my son, Thomas, was born, we moved to a house with a garden and a shed, and I started to really work on the smoking seriously. In 1994 I set up my little smoker to smoke some trout at the yearly Fisheries festival in Harlingen, in the very north of the Netherlands. I was sold out in no time. The next day I went to the Chamber of Commerce to start my smokehouse.”

Discovery of salmon

He found clients quickly: cafes and small caterers. “I bought professional smoking equipment, so I could also do cold smoking. At one point, a client asked me to smoke salmon for him. I tried it, and it tasted great. At that time I didn’t know how many different kinds of salmon there were, but I always looked for the best quality I could find, which was then Scottish Label Rouge salmon.”

“I knew my company would be small, so I couldn’t compete price-wise. Therefore, I had to focus on the quality of the raw material.”

After his discovery of salmon, his business grew, and he turned a rented garage into a smoking facility. After three years, when the lease ended, he found a spot at the Wittenburgergracht in Amsterdam, his current location.

“The city council at that time wanted to encourage new shops in this neighbourhood, so they supported me, and I started my first Frank’s Smokehouse, with a small shop for consumers.”

“One day someone walked into my shop with a big styrofoam box of salmon. He said: I have wild salmon, do you want it? I bought it and smoked it, and put it in my shop. All the clients wanted the wild salmon, even though it was more expensive.”

Christmas Special

Shortly afterwards, the Amsterdam newspaper, Het Parool, ran an article on ‘What you should eat for Christmas,’ featuring, among other foods, Frank’s wild salmon as a starter.

“The journalists told me they would recommend my shop in the article. I knew this could lead to a lot of interest in smoked wild salmon, so I called the guy who sold me the salmon, but the number was false. Later I found out he was an employee, who had stolen from the company he worked for.”

So Frank googled ‘wild salmon’, found a supplier in Alaska and called. “They gave me the address of a French importer, who, at that time, was the only importer of wild Alaskan salmon in Europe. I bought a couple of boxes, and it became part of my identity. I made contact with Alaska Seafood and became an importer myself.”

MSC

Sustainabilty was becoming a serious issue at the time, Frank Heyn recalls. “MSC had been created and companies started asking for MSC salmon. It turned out that the salmon I was importing from Alaska was one of the first products to receive MSC certification. As a result, I was the first seller to be certified and the first one to sell MSC salmon in the Netherlands.”

Because of this, Frank’s Smokehouse received even more publicity. “Wholesalers, like Sligro and Hanos, and the big Dutch fish companies started to call me, because they needed MSC fish. So my business really grew then, which wasn’t planned. My new restaurant is the only thing I ever planned.”

Chef preparing salmon cakes.

Since then Heyn has lived with the ups and downs in the salmon world. “It’s my most important product, also in my new restaurant, where it’s the largest seller and good for 30 percent of the revenue. For lunch, the smoked fish platter, with salmon, halibut and eel, is the most popular order. In the evening smoked King salmon is the most ordered main course.”

He plans to add a dish called ‘The salmon experience’ to the menu, with samples of different kinds of salmon: Scottish, Norwegian, Alaskan, raw and smoked. “The nice thing about salmon is that you don’t have to be a gourmet to taste the difference. Most people here prefer the wild salmon, but not everyone. Lots of people like the fattiness of the farmed salmon.”

The restaurant, which opened six weeks ago, had an unusual start, too. “Three years ago the project developer for this neighborhood asked me if I was interested in starting a restaurant at this location, just a couple of blocks away from my shop. I realised that my shop at that moment was the most interesting thing in the neighborhood, attracting people from all over the world. So if somebody else had started a restaurant here, that could have harmed my business. So I thought I’d better do it.”

The restaurant serves smoked fish, poultry and meat, with smoked salmon as the main attraction. His old shop is closed now. The smokehouse is still situated there, conveniently close to the new shop and restaurant.

Revival of hot smoked salmon

During the season, wild salmon is flown in weekly from Alaska, via Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Paris. The rest of the year Heyn works with frozen wild salmon. The farmed salmon is delivered three times a week through a German supplier, Seafood Ecosse.

“We’re seeing steady growth. Every year we have a 10 percent increase in volume. I have two smokers, which we use 24 hours a day. We could use a third one, but I don’t have the space, so I farm out some of my production to other smokehouses.”

The smoking process is traditional: first filleting – “We prefer to do that ourselves” – salting, with a mixture of salt and sugar, – “To soften the structure of the fish” –  and then smoking, over woodchips. The salmon that will be cold smoked is washed off the following day and hung on racks by the tail to dry for at least two days.

Heyn also produces hot smoked salmon. “That will be smoked directly after salting. We mostly do cold smoked, but the last year the demand for hot smoked has increased quite a bit. People are looking for new things, and hot smoked salmon is an alternative. It had been forgotten.”

Bigger smoking facility

He is not very happy with the lack of stability in salmon prices. “It’s not a nice business model, it’s completely unpredictable. With all the other farmed fish species the prices are at the same level for years. But salmon has become a commodity, like oil and gas. For me, my other products keep me swimming. People who are only depending on salmon lose a lot of sleep.”

With his new shop and restaurant, the circle is complete. “Smoked salmon was my first love, it made me realise my interest in food and working with people.”

“In the long run, when this place is a little bit more paid off, I’d like to invest in a bigger smoking facility and turn the old smokehouse into a museum. And then I’ll step out. But that will take a while…”