It’s been 30 years since Jon Rowley first persuaded a few salmon fishermen on Alaska’s Copper River that they might be able to do something with their superb fish other than sell it to the cannery. But even he never guessed things would get this crazy.
Today, Copper River salmon is a smash hit. And at the root of this success are a couple of big ideas, one that seems obvious today — getting the best fish and handling them carefully — and one that is still a bit wacky — a race to see which restaurant could serve the first Copper River king salmon of the season
As the Copper River season begins Wednesday, these fish will be one of the few name-dropped on menus. And the first fresh Copper River salmon of the season could fetch as much as $50 a pound.
But 30 years ago, almost none of the fish was even sold fresh. When food marketing guru Jon Rowley offered the fishermen $3.50 a pound, they were overjoyed.
Rowley, who was consulting with Seattle-area restaurants about fish, learned about the salmon from Seattle smokehouse owner Erling Nilson, who was buying the fish frozen. When Rowley investigated further, he found that not only was the fish superb, but also the port was less than a mile from an airport, which would allow quick shipping.
“They had the airport, they had a name you just couldn’t improve on, and they had the first major run of fresh salmon from the Northwest,” Rowley says.
But even more importantly, these fish were genetically a cut above.
“The fish have these superior genetics, they just put on a lot of oil,” he said. “Copper River is not a long river — it’s only 300 miles or so — but there are some really tumultuous rapids. The fish develop this oil so they can power up through there. That’s what makes good eating.
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