“And he said in this total New York accent, ‘You know…a young strapping man…a young beautiful bride…You’re gonna be big. I’m gonna keep you in the fish.’”
We all know The Brooklyn Flea’s street cred as an incubator of a new wave of culinary talent. At Smorgasburg, the Flea’s recently-launched all-food spinoff, a new crop of local upstarts is pulling no punches as they pursue dreams of translating success on the Smorg’s sun-blasted, riverside market field into something more: A living, a business, or something unforeseen.
One of the early crowd favorites at Smorgasburg has been Bon Chovie, where husband-and-wife duo Neill and Renae Holland are bringing their version of a classic Mediterranean snack – whole fried fresh anchovies – to the shores of Williamsburg.
We met up with Neill and Renae at Cornelius on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights to share some oysters and beer, and to find out how fishing, romance, anchovies, and rock n’ roll all fused together to give birth to Bon Chovie – the beginning of a dream.
So guys, let’s start with the food. What does Bon Chovie serve?
Renae: We serve fried fresh anchovies – a dish inspired by the Mediterranean tradition of frying whole anchovies – with our own New York farm-to-table twist. We do all our pickled peppers ourselves. We make the sauce ourselves. We just want to bring that kind of home cooked tradition to a really traditional food that most people here aren’t familiar with.
We do the anchovies two ways – ‘The Original,’ which has the head and tail removed, and ‘Jersey Style,’ with has the head, tail and everything intact. We assumed that 95% of the orders would be for ‘The Original’ and that only the hardcore would go for ‘Jersey Style,’ but we’ve found that people really love the full fish. Far more than we’d thought.
Neill: It’s been interesting seeing the interest people have in the whole fish. We’re all so used to eating only filleted fish, but people get really excited about the whole fish. It’s funny to see.
Renae: We make everything to order. We just give the anchovies a quick egg wash, a quick roll in the breadcrumbs, and I flash fry them for about 30 seconds and serve them with homemade pickled sweet peppers and a smoked paprika and lemon aioli that has lemon zest, pepper and paprika.
We just add a little parsley and sea salt once they come out of the fryer and that’s pretty much it. You eat them just like a French fry – just grab them by the tail, dip them in the sauce and eat away. They’re really crispy on the outside and juicy and delicate on the inside, and you get that real flavor of the sea.
Neill: It’s a really traditional food in Europe that most people here aren’t familiar with at all. But we’ve have a lot of people who’ve tried them and said things like, “Oh my god – these are delicious! I need to bring my mother out to try these. She’d love them!” So to people from a Mediterranean background, there’s definitely a level of familiarity.
How did you come up with the idea to sell fried fresh anchovies in Brooklyn?
Neill: Even before we met, we both knew we didn’t want to live the corporate life. We didn’t want to be cubicle people for our whole lives! We both wanted to have our own business.
Right after we got together it really felt like it was going to be a long-term relationship. So right away we really began thinking about what sort of business we could start together. I have a background in fishing and boats and Renae has a long history in the culinary and hospitality world. We started looking for something that would combine those angles right away.
Renae: We’ve always loved Brooklyn Flea too. We live right near it. We had friends who had a booth at Flea, and we filled in working for them one weekend. While we were there we talked to a lot of other vendors and really took stock of the whole situation, and we realized that food could be a way to do something interesting at Flea. We started racking our brains for ideas – trying to think of something interesting and unique.
Neill: I left Flea that night going, “THOSE ARE MY PEOPLE!” We absolutely loved being there.We had a friend who took a trip to Portugal, and he came back raving about fried fresh anchovies. They’re a really popular snack over there. He wouldn’t stop talking about them, so we thought hmmm…that sounds interesting!
Around the same time we noticed that at a lot of the Asian markets they were doing crunchy small fried fish. And they were really good. No one outside of those very specific markets was doing that here. We thought, “You know, we could do this.” And Brooklyn seemed like the perfect place to do it because people are so open to trying something different and something new here.
Renae: So then we went on this quest to find fresh anchovies. We started calling around to all the local seafood shops, and none of them carried fresh anchovies! We went to Chinatown and scoured the seafood markets there. No fresh anchovies. We started calling seafood shops all over the city. Nothing!
Neill: And that made us even more determined to find them.
Renae: After hunting for a few weeks, we finally found on fish shop way up in the Bronx that had them. They said, “We get them one day a week. You gotta come right in when we get ‘em because we don’t get much.”
So we went up there that week to get our first fresh anchovies. And we brought them home and fried them up, and they were amazing. First batch – totally amazing. We still did a lot of work on recipes – we tried frying them with panko breadcrumbs, regular breadcrumbs, no breadcrumbs. We made different dipping sauces and tried lots of different things and eventually found the recipe. And it was even more amazing.
Neill: We had it. We knew this was it. So then we started the process of trying to get into the Flea. We were so excited about it, and then we heard nothing back for almost three months! We started thinking that we were just never going to hear back.
Renae: Yeah, we were kind of crushed. But after three months of harassment, they asked us to come in with some samples.
Were you nervous?
Renae: I was scared. I was nervous. They don’t have a kitchen set up there, so I had to scramble to figure out how to fry the anchovies in our apartment in Fort Greene and get them to Flea’s office in DUMBO in a matter of minutes, before they got cold or soggy.
So when the day came, I was in my apartment, watching the clock, watching the minutes tick by, figuring out exactly when I should start frying. The meeting was at 11am. I decided to start frying the anchovies at 10:42am, and to have a car service pick me up at 10:50. I called the car a few minutes ahead of time and they said, “Three minutes!” I madly fried up my anchovies, ran outside and they weren’t there! I frantically ran down Dekalb looking for a car or taxi, and finally the car that was supposed to pick me up pulled up. The driver was like, “So sorry.” I was like, “Just go!”
We got there right on time and I jumped out and ran up to their office, sweating, and they were all just so cool. Eric Demby and Jane Lerner were there with a few other people and they were just so nice. But Eric wouldn’t taste the anchovies! Everyone else did, but he said, “I’ve been trying all kinds of weird food all morning. I just can’t do it.”
My heart sank a little. I said, “OK. You know, thanks so much for having me in. If you think you might be interested let me know…”
And Eric said, “Oh no, we’re definitely interested. Let’s just figure it all out.”
I was sooo excited I ran out to the street and called Neill.
Neill: I was at work when I got the call. I just jumped up, threw my hands up, and was like, “Whooooo!” Everyone around me was kind of alarmed. It was like we’d just had a baby or something! We were flipping out. We were so excited.
Renae: So we immediately called the fish market up in the Bronx to talk about securing a steady supply for the market each week. Two weeks before we were supposed to start at Smorgasburg’s opening day, we called and they said, “Sorry. They didn’t come in this week.”
That’s when we knew we had to scramble to find a more reliable supply. We did some scrambling and that’s when we found our secret source.
So basically, your “dealer…”
Neill: Totally. The fresh anchovies come in from the Mediterranean, and it’s a really limited supply. If you want a steady supply, you have to be there when they hit the docks. We literally go to the dock at the Fulton Fish Market at 3am and buy the fish as it’s being unloaded.
Out of all the big-time wholesalers who operate out of the Fulton Fish Market, only two of them deal with fresh anchovies. There’s such a small market for them that it’s really a side thing – a specialty item.
So we found our anchovy guy. We exchanged cell numbers, and we called him like five times before he eventually called and told us he had some coming in.
We both went together the first time and we talked to him and explained what we were doing.
Renae: He was this big guy, pacing around the docks in a hoodie, barking into his cellphone. A great character.
Neill: When I went back alone after our first day at Smorgasburg I was telling him about how great it was. “We had an amazing day. We sold out of everything we had.”
And he said in this total New York accent, “You know…a young strapping man…a young beautiful bride…You’re gonna be big. I’m gonna keep you in the fish.”
Hilarious. So tell me a little bit more about you guys. Where are you from? How did you get interested in food? How did you meet?
Renae: I grew up in Seattle, which has a really rich fishing culture. I fell in love with the food world when I was 15 years old, when I got a job waiting tables at a retirement home.
A retirement home!?
Yeah. It was right behind my high school. It seemed like everyone in my high school worked there! We’d get out of school, smoke a little pot, and go wait on the old people. It was awesome.
The retirement home was really nice – the dining room had white tablecloths and a whole fine dining feel. And the people there had all kinds of romances and drama going on. Someone would get mad at someone else and they’d sit at a different table that night for dinner, and everyone would notice and talk about it. It was just like high school!
My boss – I’m sure she was a psychic on the side! She had these super-long talon fingernails and wore all kinds of really sparkly things. She had this little sidekick named Franz who scurried around following her everywhere. It was all so bizarre, but that’s totally how I fell in love with the food industry. There are so many characters. It’s a lot of hours and hard work, but when it’s over you’d go out with everyone and have all kinds of fun.
I ended up working in restaurants throughout high school. I even had a fast food stint – working the fryer at Taco Time. And even that was fun. It’s funny – in a way I’ve come full circle. Now I’m working the fryer again, but this time the food is a little different. It’s actually good!
I was really into music, too. I was the lead singer in a horrible metal band. After high school I moved to Florida to go to school, and eventually moved to New York to take a job in the music industry. I was working with bands and advertisers to place music in commercials. Someone like Ford wold call and say, “We’ve got this Mustang spot and we need music for it.” I’d watch the spot, think about music that might work, put together a playlist for Ford, and work with the bands to work something out.
It was a lot of fun. I got to go to all kinds of shows. Got to hang out backstage at places like Radio City. I loved it.
But I still missed the restaurant world. So I bartended at a Spanish restaurant in Manhattan in my spare time, and when they opened a new spot in Brooklyn, I moved to Williamsburg to work there. And that’s where I met Neill. We were roommates. Along with five other people!
So what about you Neill? What led you to that fateful apartment in Williamsburg?
Well, it’s definitely fitting that we’ve got a business that’s centered on fish because I grew up on the beaches of St. Petersburg on Tampa Bay in Florida. All the men in my family are avid boaters, sailors and fishermen – and have been for ages. A number of them worked as commercial fishermen. I really took to that whole world as a kid.
You have to be eighteen years old to be certified as a Coast Guard-licensed captain. You go through about three or four months of intensive coursework and finish up with a big final exam. I started taking all my coursework when I was seventeen so that on my eighteenth birthday I could get my license and start a charter fishing business. That’s all I wanted to do. And I did it. I got my license on my eighteenth birthday and worked as a commercial fisherman and started my own fishing charter business.
I was really in love with the whole world of fishing. I ended up reading all kinds of books about fishing. I became a huge Hemingway fan, for better or worse, and that led to a love of writing. I started writing for some small publications – outdoors magazines and such…
Renae: And the St. Pete’s Times!
Neill: Yeah, I wrote a column for the St. Pete’s Times for a while, about fishing. Those early experiences of writing and getting published really led me to want more. I developed a real love for writing and for the whole culture of the newspaper world.
So when I was 22 I moved to New York to be a writer. I had no particular writing opportunities lined up. I just wanted to come up here to see what I could make happen.
Renae: He literally drove up with nothing but his old truck, a hot plate, and some clothes.
Neill: My mom packed up a hot plate for me and off I went. I had seventy five bucks in my pocket and the only thing I had lined up was a job at Jazz on the Town Hostel near Union Square, where for four months I cleaned up after raging nights of wild drinking and raunchy drunken sex, vomit, spilled beer – anything you can imagine – in return for a free bed for the night.
Renae: Ha ha ha! I love it.
Neill: So I lived there, sharing a room with eight of my closest friends. I was in a bottom bunk. I took a big blanket and tucked it under the mattress of the bed above me so it would hang down around my bunk creating this little private space. I decorated it with white Christmas lights and postcards of Florida, which I’d lay there and stare at for hours!
It was totally hilarious and kind of depressing at the same time. So while I was working at the hostel, I managed to put in an application and get accepted to the writing program at Columbia. I needed that! I needed something to go right! I finished that program in three years and went on to write as a freelancer for a few different publications.
Early on when I first moved to New York I got a part time job working at Capitol Fishing Tackle Company. Like so many people in these times, I was working three or four jobs to make ends meet. Capitol has been around since 1897. They started as a cutlery shop, and at some point they started making and sharpening fish hooks, and eventually it became a fishing shop.
It was at the Chelsea Hotel for a while. Now it’s on 36th Street between 7th and Broadway. It’s the only real old-school fishing shop in Manhattan.
I had some pretty wild experiences working there. Renae had her share of wild experiences working in the world of rock n’ roll, but the fishing store offered up its own variety of strange and funny things.
Whenever the UN was in session, delegates and diplomats from all over the world would come in. One time, the prime minister of Vanuatu, a small Pacific island country, came in. She was a huge woman – at least 6’4″ and built like a truck. She came in flanked by two military generals in formal military attire sporting all these badges and ribbons and gold roping and everything. And she had four secret service agents, in sunglasses with guns drawn, manning all the entrances and exits. We had to lock down the store so this woman could buy a box of hooks!
And she was really nice. We talked about fishing. She likes fishing. A lot of the men in her family are commercial fishermen. And she said, “Oh…here in the states everyone is fishing with a rod and reel and fancy things like lures. Trust me. I grew up on fishing. You know how I fish?”
I said, “How’s that?”
She said, “I put a rag on this hand and a rag on this hand and I haul those fish in!”
And just before she left she ended up saying to me, “If you ever come to Vanuatu, look me up. I’m in the Prime Minister’s mansion!”
Sounds like an offer you might not want to refuse.
Neill: I know, right? I gotta say, as the only fishing store for real fishing in Manhattan, that’s where you go to buy hooks. And you’d just be surprised at the variety of people who come in. It’s a really unique place. I used to say that if you stood in that shop for long enough, all of New York would come through those doors.
The guys I worked with were really interesting too. One of the guys who worked there was an Amtrack conductor – he had done that for forty years, and he worked at the shop in his spare time. A couple of other guys worked on trains for the MTA. When they were waiting for a shift they’d come in and work for a few hours. Another guy was an iron worker. They were tough old-school New York guys. They’d eat your lunch. And they were all obsessed with fishing.
Coming from the laid-back beach lifestyle in Florida it was a really interesting introduction to and education about New York. I feel like I cut my teeth as a man there with those guys! I learned how to be a New Yorker there.
Anyway, I was living up at 119th Street and Amsterdam for a while because it was close to Columbia. I got to know the neighborhood, and I liked it, but I knew it wasn’t the right place for me. So I ended up moving to Williamsburg. I ended up in the same big loft apartment at Renae and five other people. And that’s how we met.
OK, so now we’ve got you both in the same apartment. How did you end up getting together?
Renae: One night I got off work at a bartending gig, and a bunch of my coworkers and friends all went out to a bar for a drink. We all ended up going back to the apartment to hang out. In the apartment we had this big loft area. The apartment had really high ceilings, and there was an open loft space up above the area where it the seven bedrooms had been built out. We were hanging out up there and I came down to get something, and I slipped and fell and ended up breaking both of my feet!
Neill: She’s so tough that she kept insisting, “I’m fine! I’m fine!” while literally dragging herself by her fingernails to the bathroom.
Renae: He was the one who ended up picking me up and carrying me to the bathroom.
Neill: We started growing close when I had to sponge bathe her for two months.
Renae: Ha ha ha.
Neill: OK it wasn’t quite that bad…but she needed a lot of help for a while and that’s kind of when we started getting together.
Renae: Yeah. I was pretty much an invalid.
That’s pretty freaking romantic!
Neill: That was a around two years ago. We got married last July at City Hall. We had only known each other for…oh…eight months.
Renae: Ha ha ha. It’s true!
Why City Hall? How was the municipal wedding experience?
Renae: We had all these friends who were having these big extravagant weddings. We were hearing about all the drama and the crazy expense…so two weeks after we got engaged we went to City Hall and just did it.
Neill: We just wanted a real intimate experience for just us, where we wouldn’t get lost in a big production. And it worked out that way – it was amazing. Getting married at City hall was fantastic. It was a really great experience. There were probably another fifty people of all different ages and ethnicities, from all different places all over the world and all over the city, waiting in this one room to get married. Everyone was so happy. Every time another couple came out of the little chapel officially married, everyone would cheer and high five them and high five each other.
Renae: You actually walk in and you take a number. Literally. And you wait for your number to be called, and you go into the little chapel to make it official.
Neill: The woman who married us was awesome. She was this classic New York character. She clearly had a brash edge and she could have easily rushed everyone in and out like moving cars through a toll booth, but she knew that what was going on in each one of those really short ceremonies was really special and she really found a way to respect that. I kinds of get a chill thinking about it.
Renae: Neill’s mom had made a little bouquet and she said, “I just gotta tell ya. Those are the most beautiful flowas I’ve seen awl day!”
It’s kind of ironic that getting married at City Hall can be one of the most intimate experiences you can have in New York City!
Neill: It was great. Also, Renae’s parents hadn’t even met me when we got married so we were pretty sure we couldn’t ask them to pay for a wedding!
Renae: Ha ha ha. You know, the next day we had to fly out to Seattle to go to my best friend’s wedding. We had decided at the last minute that we were going to get married. She didn’t even know we were getting married. We didn’t tell her. She would have been so pissed.
Neill: So we spent our honeymoon at her best friend’s wedding not being able to tell anyone that we’d just gotten married.
Renae: We should have gone to Vanuatu!
Neill, do you do any fishing up here?
Oh yeah. I fish all the time. The fishing contingent is so small in New York City. Most people don’t necessarily even realize you can fish here, or they don’t understand why anyone would want to.
But the guys who do fish here are a die-hard group. The fishing here is some of the hardest fishing in the United States. In Florida nature is abundant, the fish are abundant and it’s easier. Here in New York when you’re under the FDR or climbing under fences and out onto rotting piers, it’s just a lot more demanding.
Renae: My favorite story recently…I love to cook fish and whenever Neill goes out fishing I always ask him to bring home a fish. But most of the guys he fishes with are serious about catch and release. Neill is too. So it’s kind of awkward. I just want a whole fish – a whole striped bass to cook up for a dinner party! What’s wrong with that?
Neill: She always says, “Bring me a fish!”
Renae: So one day recently he actually brought me a fish, and I was like, “What happened!? How did you pull this off!?” We had friends over and served the whole fish and it was really nice!
Neill: Renae really wanted a fish, and she’d been asking for a long time, so I had to bring her a fish. It was pretty funny. I caught a nice striped bass and I totally pretended to throw it back but I hid it behind a tree and snuck it home. I had thought I’d gotten away with it, but a few weeks later my fishing buddies were like, “So, what really happened to that fish Neill!?” It was worth it.
How did you guys come up with the name Bon Chovie?
Renae: In the car on the way home from picking up that first batch of anchovies in the Bronx, we were so excited! We started joking around thinking of names for this business we hoped to actually make real.
Neill: We threw around things like, ‘Brooklyn Fish Company,’ ‘Fort Greene Anchovies’…
Renae: And Neill just blurted out, ‘Bon Chovie!’ and that was it. I kind of clapped with glee and that was it.
How has the reception been at Smorgasburg?
Neill: It’s been great! Better than we ever thought. We bought twenty-two pounds of anchovies for the first day and thought that would easily cover us. We actually thought that would probably last two or three weeks. We ran out in three hours. And that’s when we first knew that maybe we were on to something good here.
The second week we doubled our order and got forty-four pounds of anchovies. We sold forty one pounds.
The best thing is that people really love the food. They get really excited about it.
Renae: Everyone seems to want to try it. I think a lot of people are kind of grossed out by it by attracted to it at the same time. When they try it, they want more.
Neill: It’s also kind of cool that we’re having all this success with Bon Chovie just two blocks away from where we met and fell in love.
Any unexpected twists or turns?
Renae: Our car smells like anchovies all the time now. We have a friend from Seattle staying with us and she got into the car and said, “It smells horrible in here!”
Neill: We tell her (in classic ‘Godfather’ accent), “That’s the smell of money.”
Another really funny side effect of Bon Chovie has been all the attention we’ve gotten. During those years of famine the only thing I wanted was to be published – to make it happen. And because of Bon Chovie, I just got asked to write a feature for one of my favorite fishing magazines. I used to scour the Media Bistro posts every day looking for writing opportunities. And Media Bistro just asked me last week to be on a panel for journalists going through a career change. I’m thinking to myself…you know, five years ago, I was desperate to get these people’s attention, and now that I’m doing something completely different, they’re calling me!
You can taste one of Bon Chovie’s “Original” or “Jersey Style” fried anchovies at Smorgasburg on Saturdays from 9am – 5pm at 27 North 6th St. in Williamsburg, on the waterfront.