As a child spending summer vacations in Clearwater, Florida, Jonathan Searle saw smoked fish spreads, paired with Saltines and Texas Pete hot sauce, at every fishmonger shop, restaurant, and, when he got older, in every dive bar. “I loved these dips and didn’t realize until I started cooking professionally that they were a great way to utilize trim from the butchering of whole fish,” Searle says. As executive chef of 21c Museum Hotel Louisville’s Proof on Main, he keeps the working-class soul of his smoked fish dish by not “overfussing” it.
“Catfish, at least for me, has nostalgia to it,” Searle says. “I grew up eating it, and a lot of eating is drawing emotion from something. It’s catfish for me, trout or mullet to someone else.” Proof on Main’s catfish is regularly sourced out of Lake Barkley in southwestern Kentucky. Searle blends the flaky, smoked fish with mayo, plus lemon juice and zest, mustard, and a bit of sour cream for extra tang, and serves it with his homemade hot sauce.
Though the dish has humble roots, Searle does dress up the presentation a little when he make it at home. “I’m gonna really clean up that scoop of fish, put crackers on the side with some lemon wedges and hot sauce, chives, fresh cracked pepper, and dill sprigs on top” Searle says. “It reminds me of all those good times with family as a kid. That’s what good food should do.”