Chef Howard Hanna of The Rieger dips his index finger into an open tank of brown water teeming with “good” bacteria and sucks on the droplets.
“Very salty,” he remarks.
Hanna and members of his staff from both The Rieger and his Westport champagne bar CaVa are on a field trip, enjoying the balmy temperatures inside a metal pole barn built by farmers Mitch and Julie Schieber.
The Schiebers own KC Shrimp Co. in Oak Grove, and their barn is home to 10 14-foot tanks, each containing 3,300 gallons of salt water and approximately 3,500 Pacific White shrimp. When fully grown, the shrimp are sold to local chefs. Hanna uses the plump delicacies in a rich bisque or poached beside salt cod served with local leeks and a sauce vin blanc.
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The Schiebers began raising saltwater shrimp a year ago, shortly after Mitch helped their daughter, Caedran, with an elementary school science fair project measuring how water salinity affects the survival of brine shrimp.
“I was interested in seeing if I could grow them in a trash can in the garage, just to say I did it,” Mitch says.
Mitch’s curiosity and research led him to RDM Aquaculture, a shrimp farm in Fowler, Ind., that teaches other farmers how to set up a recirculating water system with the goal of promoting environmentally sustainable aquaculture throughout the Midwest.
Shrimp is the most popular seafood: Americans eat 4 pounds per person a year, according to Seafoodhealthfacts.org. But 90 percent of that shrimp is farmed overseas. The global fishing industry has come under fire for its poor environmental practices and use of slave labor, hormones and antibiotics. If not properly managed, farm-raised shrimp can spread disease to wild stocks.
“There’s so many problems with farmed shrimp from Southeast Asia: slave labor for one, and they’re not inspected,” Julie says. “This is the seafood you can feel great about serving to your family or ordering in a restaurant.”
Once a month, Mitch, a remodeler, drives his truck to Indiana, where he picks up 2-month-old, veterinarian-inspected shrimp measuring 3/4 - to 1-inch long. The shrimp are carefully siphoned into an insulated cooler hooked up to an oxygen tank to aerate the water as he makes the day-long drive home.
For the next four to five months, the shrimp are fed a diet of high-protein fish meal twice a day, and the water is tested once a day to ensure there is a proper balance of salt (from a product called Instant Ocean), “good” bacteria (to consume the waste) and oxygen.
Get the recipe just right, and the shrimp will thrive. Survival rates for KC Shrimp Co. are currently around 50 percent, but the Schiebers expect to inch closer to the industry average of 80 percent in the coming months by creating a nursery, which will allow them to ship shrimp the size of an eyelash from Florida.
On Thursdays, the Schiebers drain a pool and use a net to scoop up the shrimp as they flip, wriggle and jump. After subduing the shrimp in a tub of ice water, the couple eye-balls the shrimp for size, sorts them into plastic bags, weighs them and delivers them live. As long as shrimp are sold whole, rather than with heads and tails removed, Mitch says, Missouri state law regards the seafood transaction as it would livestock.
The Schiebers initially spent a few less-than-fruitful Saturdays sitting in lawn chairs and waiting to sell their shrimp directly to consumers. Then a Chow Town blog post prompted Ryan Brazeal, chef and owner of Novel, to call about buying some shrimp.
“One thing that we’ve been so thankful for is chefs like you who want fresh seafood,” Julie says to Hanna. “One of the challenges of raising shrimp in the Midwest is that people are not used to buying fresh seafood, so getting the word out about our product has been hard.”
Currently The Rieger, Novel, Brewery Emperial, Farmhouse and Justus Drugstore consume the bulk of the 30 to 50 pounds KC Shrimp Co. produces each week.
“It’s such a unique opportunity to use shrimp raised in the Midwest,” Brazeal says. “Something local, sustainable and responsibly sourced were our big, driving factors.” The shrimp were featured in a gumbo this winter, and Brazeal is working on a barbecue shrimp scampi for his spring menu launch.
Hanna’s restaurant also emphasizes dishes using seasonal, local and sustainable ingredients, including farm-raised trout, catfish and Missouri-raised Hackleback caviar. He is featuring the shrimp in a bisque because customers were uncomfortable eating them with heads and shells. Not one to waste, Hanna dries the shrimp heads and grinds them into a powder to spike a rouille — essentially a flavored mayo — that he swipes on a toasted crouton used to garnish the soup.
“We’re trying to get as much mileage as possible,” Hanna says.
At Brewery Emperial, a brewery/restaurant by chef Ted Habiger of Room 39, the shrimp is served with the heads and tails on, and diners are encouraged to dip them in a chimichurri sauce.
“They’re almost like soft-shell crabs,” Habiger says. “The shells are as thin as tissue paper … it’s like it’s hardly even there.”
Chef Michael Foust of Farmhouse tried serving the shrimp with the heads on but found at least half of his customers preferred to peel before eating. For his spring menu, he’s marinating the shrimp and grilling it to give it a kiss of smoke, then serving it surf-and-turf-style, with braised short ribs.
The Schiebers tried Habiger’s recipe for sauteed head-on shrimp and served it to skeptical family members over Thanksgiving. They asked family members to give them one word to describe the flavor, but they wound up with two: clean and fresh.
“It’s a really clean and light flavor with a softer texture and thinner shells,” Hanna agrees. “It tastes like it’s good for you. We tend to use them in simple ways so as not to overpower the shrimp.”
Chefs joke shrimp is a “gateway” seafood, and its astounding popularity means Midwestern chefs with a local bent need to ensure that what they are serving is raised in a sustainable manner.
“Even if you don’t damage a coral reef or have a lot of bycatch, there are limits,” Hanna says. “I love octopus, tuna, shrimp. My family is Polynesian: We eat everything that swims. But I thought it would be nice to find something closer to home.”
Find KC Shrimp
Here’s what you’ll find on menus around town:
▪ KC Shrimp bisque with shrimp head rouille ($5 or $9) and salt-cured catfish with poached shrimp, creamed hominy, leeks and sauce vin blanc ($25), The Rieger.
▪ Shell-on KC Shrimp with chimichurri ($12), Brewery Emperial.
▪ Braised short ribs with grilled KC Shrimp, cornmeal and sweet potato cake, fried leeks, brined garlic buds in beef and sumac jus ($28), The Farmhouse.
▪ KC Shrimp gumbo with rabbit andouille, fresh polenta and fennel has been featured on the winter menu at Novel. For spring, chef Ryan Brazeal is working on a barbecue shrimp scampi dish.
Where to buy for yourself:
Mitch and Julie Schieber also sell their shrimp for $18 a pound (20-count or 30-count) to the public from their farm at 35605 E. Truman Road in Oak Grove. To place an order and make an appointment for pickup, call 816-786-8486 or email email@example.com. The owners encourage scheduling tours as well, and they have plans to add a nursery that will make it easier for schoolchildren to see the process.
Cooking tips: The shrimp can be stored two days in the refrigerator with the heads on, and an additional two days if the heads have been removed. Never freeze the shrimp with the heads on. There is no need to de-vein the shrimp.