A group of chefs from California, Oregon and Kodiak, Alaska, recently immersed themselves in the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, observing, harvesting and preparing freshly caught wild sockeye from these pristine Alaska waters.
Chefs Helene Kennan of Bon Appetit Management Co., Quentin Topping of Google, Lisa Schroeder of Mother’s Bistro and Mama Mia Trattoria in Portland and Joel Chenet of Mill Bay Coffee in Kodiak gathered in the Alaska community of King Salmon in late June. They took part in an “all things salmon” culinary adventure sponsored by Trout Unlimited Alaska. Trout Unlimited is the nation’s oldest and largest fisheries conservation group dedicated to conserving, protecting and restoring coldwater fisheries and their habitats
In Alaska, Trout Unlimited focuses on protecting Bristol Bay, home of the world’s largest sockeye salmon run. Sockeye, also known as red salmon, has a rich, oily flavor, firm texture, and signature crimson color. It is one of five species of Pacific salmon that return to Bristol Bay each summer to spawn. In 2009, some 40 million sockeye returned to Bristol Bay, making the remote bay in Southwest Alaska the biggest sockeye-producing region on the planet. Ironically, it’s also where developers are hoping to build an enormous copper and gold mine called Pebble that threatens to pollute the area with acid mine drainage, toxic dust, and other industrial byproducts associated with an open-pit mine. Trout Unlimited Alaska is working to gain permanent protection for Bristol Bay so that proposed mining projects like Pebble are never allowed to taint this biological gem.
In the later part of June, when the sockeye started running hard, the four chefs and some national food writers flew to King Salmon and spent the next several days taking part in the fishery. They hopped abroad skiffs operated by commercial fishermen, helped haul in nets, picked fish, and toured a processing plant that heads and guts and flash-freezes the product. View a photo montage of the trip, compiled by Google executive chef Quentin Topping.
“It was a great experience to witness up close where the fish come from, how well they are handled and to prepare some that we literally pulled from the water a few hours earlier,” said Bon Appetit Management Co. Chef Helene Kennan, a past president of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs.
After set netting and touring a processing plant, the chefs also watched an Alaska Native elder fillet and smoke strips of sockeye in her backyard smokehouse using a brine of salt and brown sugar. They also flew to nearby Katmai National Park for some up-close viewing of grizzly bears fishing for salmon at Brooks Falls, a world-famous bear viewing spot. Watch the video from Katmai, and this clip from Leader Creek Fisheries in Naknek, an innovative company that is at the forefront of flash-freezing and premium filleting techniques.
The tour was capped with a four-course dinner at Bear Trail Lodge. The menu included appetizers of Salmon Rillet and Alaska Wild Salmon Salad Nicoise, followed by a main course of Grilled Bristol Bay Sockeye Salmon with Red Onion Compote and Red Wine Beurre Rouge and finished with a dessert of Salmonberry Mousse Cake.
Trout Unlimited Alaska works with chefs and restaurant owners, particularly on the West Coast, as part of its Savor Bristol Bay campaign. This grassroots effort seeks to educate the public about the risks facing the Bristol Bay salmon fishery and what seafood lovers can do to get involved and help protect this very special place. (More information is available at www.savebristolbay.org and www.whywild.org.)