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How Alaska's Copper River salmon gained worldwide fame

Chris Nishiwaki/Bellvue Patch
Guests enjoy a train ride to Indian, along Turnagain Arm, before the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off on May 14, 2012.
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Chef Kristi Skaflestad's entry in the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012. Skaflestad placed third in the event.
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Guests enjoy appetizers before the start of the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012.
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Chef Aaron Apling-Gilman's entry in the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012.
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Chef Mary Helms of Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson readys her timer during the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012. Contestants had one hour to prepare their dishes.
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Chef Gil Turturici's entry in the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012.
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The timekeeper signals the start of a contestant's hour with an air horn during the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012.
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Chef Christopher Vane's winning entry in the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012.
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Guests cheer on their favorite team during the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012.
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Guests depart the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off in style, aboard the Alaska Railroad, after the event on May 14, 2012.
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Chef Christopher Vane of Crush Wine Bistro prepares his dish during the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012. Vane went on to win the event.
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Steve Agee enjoys the sunset as the train takes him back to the Alaska Railroad Depot after the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off on May 14, 2012. His son Chase Agee assisted chef Christopher Vane for top honors at the event.
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Chef Kevin Lane of the Alaska Culinary Academy in Seward, and his assistant plate their dish during the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012. Lane placed second in the event.
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Chef Kevin Lane of the Alaska Culinary Academy in Seward plates his dish during the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012. Lane placed second in the event.
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Former Alaska Governor Bill Sheffield, center, at the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012. With him is Van Hale, left, owner of the highly regarded Marx Brothers Cafe in Anchorage.
Loren Holmes
A runner brings chef Kevin Lane's creation to the judges during the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012.
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Chef Kevin Lane of the Alaska Culinary Academy in Seward pitches his creation to Alaskan Chef Rob Kinneen, left, and Christine Keff of Seattle's Flying Fish, during the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012.
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Judges taste the entries in the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012.
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Judges discuss the entries in the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012. Chef Christopher Vane of Crush Wine Bistro in Anchorage went on to win the event.
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Chef Christopher Vane of Crush Wine Bistro in Anchorage receives a first place crown from Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell for winning the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012.
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Chef Kevin Lane's entry in the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012. He won second place.
Loren Holmes photo
Guests enjoy a train ride to Indian, along Turnagain Arm, before the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off on May 14, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo
Chef Mary Helms' entry in the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off, held at the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot on May 14, 2012.
Loren Holmes photo

Seafood consultant Jon Rowley is the king of Copper River King Salmon.

It was Rowley who, in 1983, transformed how Copper River King Salmon was treated, raising it from frozen and canned salmon for export to a delicacy anticipated every spring like school children anticipate the end of the school year.

“(In 1983) the quality was horrible,” Rowley said.

'Best fish in the world'

Today, Rowley puts it simply, “Copper River King Salmon is the best fish in the world.” He refers to the fish as fat-bellied thoroughbreds.

A fisherman by trade, Rowley consulted for such Washington state restaurants as Ray’s Boathouse, Restaurants Unlimited, McCormick & Schmick’s and Rosellini’s 410 during the Copper River King season in 1983. He devised an efficient process of bleeding and icing the fish before it reached rigor mortis, instead of freezing them stiff.

He also negotiated with Seattle-based Alaska Airlines to ship the fish immediately from Cordova, Alaska, to Seattle so Rowley’s client restaurants could serve them fresh.

Copper River salmon season opens May 17. Some restaurants such as El Gaucho BellevueSeastar and John Howie Steak plan to serve the fish as early as May 18.

At The Herbfarm in Woodinville, the May 18-June 3 menu, themed Salmon Nation, will feature salmon from the Copper, Yukon and Columbia rivers.

$60 filets?

“If I didn’t have it in my restaurant the first day it was available I would have a lot of angry customers,” said John Howie, chef and owner of Seastar.

Other restaurants, such as Bis on Main in Old Bellevue and Barking Frog in Woodinville’s Willows Lodge will wait a week or two as the prices subside with the hype to serve the oily fish.

“We wait until it gets to be a reasonable price because we don’t want to charge $50 to $60 for an 8-ounce fillet,” said Joe Vilardi, owner and general manager of Bis on Main. “A lot of it is hype. How much better is it than other salmons?”

Rowley dismisses the perception that first of the season Copper River King Salmon are superior. “That is simply not true,” Rowley states flatly. Price is driven by consumers who don’t want to wait to enjoy the oily fish.

“In large part, it is big hype,” Vilardi said. “It created such a name for itself.”

Rowley warns consumers of lower quality imitations looking to capitalize on the hype. Rowley encourages consumers to get to know their local fishmongers, who know the source of the product they sell. He also recommends to look for the fattest bellies.

At Barking Frog, sous chef Josh Delgado uses the entire fish. He prepares 6- to 7-ounce fillets from the fat belly. He makes salmon tartare or sashimi from the rest of the flesh. He also crisps the skin to make salmon chips and uses the bones to make a stock.

Marbling adds taste

“They are a beautiful creature. They are a monster fish,” Delgado said. “It’s a lot more fatty. It has a lot more of that marbling than other salmon. That gives it flavor. We look for things that will complement the fish, but you look for ingredients that are not going to mess around with it.”

Delgado plans to serve the salmon with other in-season ingredients such as morel mushrooms, ramps and fiddleheads.

The flavorful and fatty fish is a natural food pairing for Oregon Pinot Noir with its floral and woodsy nose, flavors of raspberries and red cherries and lithe acidity on the finish. California Pinot Noir can be higher in alcohol and oak that can overpower the fish’s flavors.

“In my estimation, Copper River King Salmon and Oregon Pinot Noir is the best food-wine pairing,” Rowley said.

Rowley is not just a promoter and a fisherman who helped bring Copper River Salmon to the consciousness of consumers. He’s also a member of the consuming public.

“I get excited about the season every year,” Rowley said. “I see the price is $50 per pound and you know what? It’s worth it.”

Used by permission of the Bellvue Patch.  Read the original story here.