For Keyia Yalcin, preparing lake trout is more than getting the perfect cornmeal batter encrusted on the flaky white fish or pairing it with soft, sliced white bread and the right hot sauce. It’s also about acknowledging a sense of history and supporting other Black women in the process.
That’s why during October, Yalcin, who owns Fishnet, a pescatarian-focused food stall in Mount Vernon Marketplace, is offering a special on the iconic Baltimore dish. A portion of the proceeds from each dish — which is actually whiting — will be donated to Just Call Me Chef, a local organization that supports and showcases Black women in the culinary industry.
Yalcin, 36, wanted to offer the special based on the lake trout dish she ate as a child at The Roost, a community institution in Northwest Baltimore operated by the late Doris Williams.
The Reisterstown Road restaurant closed in 2006 — about a year after Williams died of ovarian cancer. The Baltimore eatery left a powerful memory for Yalcin, who fondly recalled going there with her father as she was growing up. While she met Williams only a handful of times, Yalcin said she wanted to pay homage to the woman she credits with partially influencing her business.
She also wanted to weave that tribute into a way to assist Just Call Me Chef, which is helping to pave the way for other Black women.
“The more I can support them with this dish that comes from this Black female entrepreneur, [the more] I’m going to connect the past with the future and bring some attention to both of them,” Yalcin said.
The special at Fishnet includes two golden brown fried fillets atop two pieces of white bread for $11.95.
How it all started
Fried fish is a time-honored tradition for Black Americans that dates back to when enslaved Black people used it as a means of bartering, according to Psyche Williams-Forson, associate professor and chair of the department of American studies at University of Maryland College Park. She said fish has been used as both a form of sustenance and as an economic driver in the Black community.
“This is part of the historical legacy of African American people. You take a food and create a business out of it,” said Williams-Forson, adding that Black people in port cities like Baltimore have a special relationship with fish.
“[It’s] similar to the shoe box lunch [meals packed in shoe boxes that were popularized by Black Americans when they traveled]," she said. "It seems like the lake trout’s history is similar. Black people have always made use of the resources around them.”
Yalcin wanted to do right by Williams' well-known dish. But it was complicated because Williams died without divulging the recipe for her lake trout. So Yalcin mimicked the same headless, split down the middle, tail-on fillets that Williams served up and then put her own stamp on the recipe.
Yalcin perfected the recipe in August with the help of her father, Aaron Jackson. She traveled to his home in Dallas, where they spent about a day adjusting and perfecting their version of the dish.
“We literally set up a test kitchen to recreate a recipe that we tried 20 years ago,” she recalled. “This is not a copycat recipe. We didn’t get the exact recipe. But we got really close. Some say that we did it better.”
Williams' lake trout is a departure from the way that Yalcin’s restaurant usually cooks fish. Fishnet typically uses rice flour, while Williams' lake trout dish requires a more traditional cornmeal coating that is mixed with “nostalgia and, of course, Old Bay,” Yalcin said. (She wouldn’t divulge any further detail about her now-secret recipe.)
At its height, The Roost — under Williams' watchful eye — served up to 3,000 pounds of the fish a night, according to Yalcin, who is working with Williams' fish monger, Jessup-based Reliant Fish, for her special.
Williams opened the restaurant as a fried chicken and burger carryout in 1974 after acquiring a Burger Chef fast-food franchise, according to a remembrance in The Baltimore Sun. In 1978, when burger sales were down, she switched to fried fish on a whim after a customer suggested it. She admitted to not knowing a thing about frying fish at first.
“I don’t believe that Doris Williams got rich from this business. This was a labor of love,” Yalcin said. "The area was vibrant because of her business. I respect that. That is what small business is about. No one is getting rich and becoming this one percent. But you are sustaining a community. She sustained a community for 25 years.”
Doing it for the sisterhood
Yalcin opened her first Fishnet eatery in College Park in 2011 with her husband, Ferhat Yalcin. She opened her current Baltimore location in 2019.
The lake trout special is meant to “honor the fact that there were people who came before us,” she said. “Black excellence is not some new concept.”
Catina Smith, the founder of the organization that Yalcin is helping, said she is humbled and grateful for the support. She described Yalcin’s efforts as the ultimate in “Black Girl Magic.”
“To me it’s a big deal,” Smith said.
Smith, 34, founded Just Call Me Chef two years ago to provide more opportunities for Black women chefs through increased visibility. Since launching the group, Smith has created calendars and organized networking events. There are about 70 members of the organization, but Smith has worked with more than 100 women through her efforts, she said.
Smith said that the money from Yalcin’s lake trout special will allow her to complete another calendar featuring Black women in the culinary industry. Proceeds from the sale of the calendar eventually will help provide seed money for group member’s businesses.
“They always say that Black women want to tear each other down and have a crab-in-a-barrel mentality. That is not true," Smith said. “It really is a sisterhood out here. We’re realizing that the support of one another is helping to elevate one another.”