By Pat Hickey
July 31, 2022
Not what we have; But what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance–Epicurus
Do not pack what you cannot carry. – Nicole Bissonnette of Fish Camp
Food is only a small part of dining. Fish, fowl, meats, vegetables, herbs, and spices must be prepared, put to flame, or not, and presented by a person with a great heart in order to elevate sustenance to the altar of Epicurus.
Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who developed a system for living that depended upon an empirical understanding of the senses, the most prominent of them being the sense of taste. An epicurean is a person who has developed a discerning palate and knows exactly what constitutes a pleasurable experience when dining.
Me? I like to eat. I am also a fairly good pantry cook who can whip up a great omelet and salad, as well as roast the odd duck, lamb, or rack of beef and gussy-up some tasty vegetables to side with the main course. I was a single parent for twenty-plus years and became an adept with the slow cooker. Aside from box cake mixes, I cannot bake a lick.
However, I have a sophisticated set of taste buds and a proficient olfactory operation and know what tastes great and what is merely eating something.
I like to dine, rather than eat.
That requires fellow human beings to prepare, present and most importantly, share tasty victuals.
Of all the places on earth where a child of God can dine like a grandee of Old Spain, I would cite Les Nomades in Chicago, The Longbranch in L’Erable Illinois and Fish Camp in Michigan City, Indiana.
Les Nomades is Olympian, with an Olympian post-prandial bill.
The Longbranch is a sophisticated small-town roadhouse with an all-American menu. There is only the Longbranch and the Roman Catholic Church of St. John the Baptist in L’Erable, Illinois.
Fish Camp is like a table in the home of a close family member at a special time—a Bar Mitzvah, a First Communion, or an engagement party. There is a warm and friendly wait staff and fully stocked oyster shucking bar, as well as a substantial bar lounge and patio.
Fish Camp is owned and operated by Nicole Bissonnette, a single mom, a Cordon Bleu master chef and a leader of extraordinary courage and conviction.
I had the pleasure of being Nicole Bissonnette’s high school English teacher at Bishop McNamara High School in Kankakee. She graduated from De Paul University with a business degree and a minor in French and later worked in operations for the French Bank in Chicago. When her apartment was robbed, Nicole took a backpack to France to figure things out. While in Paris, Nicole attended the celebrated Le Cordon Bleu school of culinary arts and became a Master Chef. She opened a restaurant in Valparaiso, Indiana and later, Bartlett’s Gourmet Bar and Grill in Beverly Shores, Indiana.
When I returned to Michigan City in 2019, a friend suggested that I give Fish Camp a try. Fish Camp is in the building that houses the Michigan City Yacht Club across from the Marina and Coast Guard Station. I had the halibut and went into an ecstatic trance. My table mate thought that something was wrong with me and reached for my hand. I came out of it and waxed poetic about the sauce and perfectly presented vegetable medley. I went all weepy when presented with the dessert of Key Lime Pie Cake.
For the last three years, Fish Camp has been my go-to dinner place.
Sadly, in this post-Covid, cannot- get -supplies, new -normal age of shrugging and giving up, I have witnessed Nicole Bissonnette gear up for combat. She can deal with fear, excuses, and delays in delivery. What is doing harm to dining in Michigan City is a lack of workers.
Fish Camp has legions of customers and only three cooks to help Chef Nicole, when she needs fourteen. As a result, dining hours have been cut.
Nicole Bissonnette works arduously long hours, pays good wages and handsome bonuses, but the moral poison in the blood of some young people who should be bartenders and cooks has coursed all too freely through some thin veins, since Covid became the national bogey man.
Bartenders want to be paid in cash and more want extended me-time. Cooks want cash and not the obligation of paying taxes. Without going down the rabbit- hole of “specific examples” of good wages, let us just say that Fish Camp offers incredibly competitive wages to people who want to work in the hospitality industry.
Schools and parents can create unrealistic expectations in our young people. Not every child is a prodigy, nor should every child be goaded into ‘believing in stardom.’ AAU Camps and AP courses did nothing for Jim Thorpe or Emily Dickinson and Alfred North Whitehead was not a mathlete, as I recall. Students who are never caught reading books outside of school should not be pushed into Purdue, or U of I Northwest. The skilled trades are hungry for people who want to work and have a work ethic. Every American has the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. A good career as a cook, bartender or host can lead to happiness. Joseph Conrad was a sailor long before he put pen to paper and created literary masterpieces.
I asked Nicole about the twisted expectations among her young (age 21-40) workers, and she quite frankly placed the blame on parents and our schools. “Kids are taught to toss away our traditions and our American work ethic. They no longer rise for the pledge of allegiance and neither do they rise to meet challenges. I was taught never to pack anything that I could not carry. Too many younger Americans expect everything to be a right and not an opportunity. Pay your taxes and do your job, like everyone else.”
I asked about the reaction of some of her customers to this worker shortage and she told me most are in full agreement with her, but the Woke and the keyboard commandos of social media demand that she pay them more money. Nicole challenges such dismissive folks on the sidelines to find out exactly what she pays already. Nicole Bissonnette owns Fish camp, a sister diner at the Marina called Base Camp, specializing in sandwiches and breakfast meals and a roadhouse, Joe and Freddy’s Bar and Grill on Route 12 just west of Michigan City. Nicole is at one of these operations every day seven days a week. Fish Camp is the flagship restaurant. It has the most significant labor shortage. Fish Camp’s bi-monthly payroll is $28,000. Add to that $40,000 more in rent, utilities, insurances, and incidentals running from carpets to cutlery, and one wonders how Nicole Bissonnette makes a run of things. She has core values and grit.
Ms. Bissonnette states, “I believe that bringing people to table to share great food and libations induces our sense of loving community, family, and friends. My business is to provide for just that experience. That requires my workday to be a stretch of my limits.”
It is those core values learned from parents and church, as well as from an education rooted in traditional values and ethical living that makes Fish Camp an outstanding restaurant and workplace. The flighty attitudes and unreal expectations accepted by too many American young people are causing the worker shortage for Fish Camp and many, many more businesses.
Core values and sweat equity make a CEO, a capitalist if you will. Most businesses that I have experienced are operated by people like Nicole Bissonnette. If you have read this piece and know of a young man or woman who would love a career in the hospitality industry, refer that person to Nicole Bissonnette and Fish Camp.
Help get workers into the industry, where they will learn from accomplished leaders like Nicole.
I will write about a few more such core conviction capitalists in the next few weeks. In the meantime, take a meal at Fish Camp! To paraphrase Epicurus, we have Fish Camp; enjoy.
Fish Camp Hours: Closed Monday and Tuesday. Open Wednesday and Thursday 3 pm to 8 pm; Friday 3 pm to 9 p.m.; Saturday noon-9 pm; Sunday 11 am—5 p.m.
Pat Hickey’s most recent column for johnkassnews was “Two Days Before The Mast–Life is Simple, If You Add Water”
He was born November 8, 1952 in Englewood Hospital, Chicago Illinois, Hickey attended Chicago Catholic grammar and high schools, received a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from Loyola University in 1974, began teaching English and coaching sports at Bishop McNamara High School in Kankakee, IL in 1975, married Mary Cleary in 1983, received a Master of Arts in English Literature from Loyola in 1987, taught at La Lumiere School in Indiana from 1988-1994, took a position as Director of Development with Bishop Noll Institute in Hammond, IN and then Leo High School in Chicago in 1996. His wife Mary died in 1998 and Hickey returned with his three children to Chicago’s south side.
From 1998 until 2019, it became obvious that Illinois and Chicago turned like Stilton cheese on a humid countertop. In that time, he wrote a couple of books and many columns for Irish American News. When the kids became independent and vital adults, he moved to Michigan City, Indiana, where he job coaches Downs Syndrome and Autistic teens in LaPorte County. He walks to the Michigan City Lighthouse every chance he gets.