Reuben Gerber lowered his knife and sliced away the top layer of the Copper River's first salmon catch of the season, revealing a brilliant red interior.
The chef filleted the fish quickly and later transferred it to a pan. The smell wafted across the kitchen of the Clare House emergency shelter in Anchorage, a kitchen unaccustomed to the presence of top-level chefs or Copper River salmon.
Instead of his usual post in the Crow's Nest kitchen in the Hotel Captain Cook, Gerber spent Saturday preparing sockeye salmon for about 100 homeless women and children at Clare House, part of a new effort to share the season's "first fish" with those who couldn't afford it otherwise.
The ceremonious bonanza of unleashing Copper River salmon onto the market eagerly awaiting the fresh fish is a rite of spring. Over the years, Copper River fisheries have capitalized on the strong demand for the oil-rich kings and sockeyes through improvements in care and handling and a brisk marketing campaign.
Fishermen spent 12 hours catching the first harvest of Copper River salmon when the commercial gillnet season officially opened Thursday. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates the 2014 Copper River salmon harvest at 1.6 million sockeye and 22,000 kings, according to Andy Wink, a research analyst and project manager at the McDowell Group specializing in seafood market analysis.
The early fish, brighter and firmer, tend to fetch higher prices, Wink said. In 2013, the wholesale price for Copper River sockeye started out at $8 per pound, or about $35 per fish. The wholesale price for kings, meanwhile, started out at $16.25 a pound in 2013, or about $225 for an average-sized fish.
The pageantry of salmon season
Seasonal rituals welcoming the return of the fish began Friday when an Alaska Air Cargo plane from Cordova, carrying 24,100 pounds of salmon, landed at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, followed by a ceremonial cook-off among three chefs. In Anchorage, after a shipment of salmon touched down at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, Copper River Seafoods delivered a ceremonial first fish to seven downtown restaurants.
Once Copper River salmon hits the market, a frenzy erupts at Pike Place Market in Seattle, and high-priced plates start appearing on menus in restaurants in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. At Anthony's Pier 66 restaurant on the Seattle waterfront on Friday, brand-new menus listed a plate of Copper River sockeye at $29.95. A plate of king salmon cost $39.95.
But for the 2014 season, one Copper River fisherman decided the first catch should make its way beyond the crowd who can dine at high-end restaurants.
Jeff Olsen, a board member of the Copper River/Prince William Sound Marketing Association who came up with the idea to donate salmon to Clare House, said he's long been bothered by the media hype and big money associated with sending the first Copper River fish to Seattle, and he knows others feel the same way.
"Alaskans deserve the first fish, and who better to give it to than the women and children that can't go get it themselves?" Olsen said. He called Catholic Social Services, which operates Clare House, and the luncheon was set for Saturday.
Just before 11 a.m., Derek Blake, a fifth-generation Alaska fisherman, pulled up in his truck to deliver the box of fish to the shelter. Chef Gerber met him outside, and the two walked back into the kitchen to unpack the batch of sockeyes.
"Nice," Gerber said appreciatively, pulling out a fish and holding it up.
Gerber cooked last year's "first fish" for guests who paid for the meal at the Crow's Nest. He volunteered this year to prepare the meals for the women and children at Clare House, free of charge.
"This is really what it's all about," Gerber said.
A beaming Susan Bomalaski, the executive director of Catholic Social Services, called the luncheon "the biggest thing to happen" at Clare House since the facility opened at its new Spenard Road location in September. A former hotel, the two-story building was renovated to offer 12 rooms of emergency housing and 13 rooms of progressive, longer-term housing for homeless women and children, as well as for homeless women who are pregnant and older than 18.
Part of what made the cook-off possible was the facility's newly renovated kitchen, twice as large as the kitchen in the old Clare House building on West 54th Avenue, Bomalaski said. Clare House provides about 180 meals a day, with the help of churches, service organizations and donors.
Going back for fourths
On a pair of cutting boards, Gerber sliced and filleted the fish before transferring it to the stove, where he pan-seared the fillets in grapeseed oil. He paired the salmon with a side of ratatouille and toasted walnut and pine basil pesto.
The majority of the women who enter Clare House earn less than $10,000 a year. Many arrive with no source of income at all.
"The women here, they like good food like that and everything but they can't afford to take their kids," said Jaclyn Volden, 35, who recently came to stay at the shelter. Volden works two jobs, one as a shift manager at Subway and the other at a Carrs-Safeway liquor store.
"They don't have any sort of ability to take their kids or even themselves to enjoy something like this. Something better than McDonald's."
At a table in the shelter's dining room, Gerber set down plates in front of Volden and her 13-year-old son, Don'Vittorio Wilcher. The two dug in, and nodded appreciatively as they ate.
Don'Vittorio went back for seconds. Then thirds. And then fourths, heeding his mother and Catholic Social Services staff, who told him to eat as much as he wanted.
Nancy Disla, 36, has lived at Clare House the past two months and plans to move out soon. She said she'd be sleeping in her car if not for the shelter.
She finished her meal quickly. She works as a janitor at the Dimond Center and was dashing out to be on time.
"The salmon was really fresh and tender, not overcooked. Perfect," she said.
As she walked into the kitchen to wash her plates -- with no cleaning staff, the women do their own dishes -- Disla called over to Gerber.
"Thank you. It was really good," she said. "I really appreciate you doing that for us."
Reach Devin Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4314.
By DEVIN KELLY