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Food & Drink

How Alaska's Copper River salmon gained worldwide fame

  • Author: Chris Patch
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published May 18, 2012

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 Bellevue, Seastar 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.

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