Copper River salmon netted their annual red-carpet treatment when the much-heralded fish, after fighting their way 300 miles upstream against strong icy currents to their spawning grounds in south-central Alaska, touched down at Sea-Tac Airport last Friday morning. You'd'a thought an actual king had come a-calling.
Jon Rowley remembers well the days when the Copper River king ended up frozen for export to Japan or canned, fetching mere pennies—certainly nowhere near the $65 the celebrated fish hooked Friday evening at Ray's Boathouse. (Copper River sockeye went for $38 at the upstairs cafe.) "Oh, yes, it has all snowballed," says Rowley, adding with a chuckle, "Now it seems like it's too big for its britches."
Rowley is the mastermind of the Copper River salmon boom, one of the marketing geniuses who turned this oily, fat-bellied thoroughbred into aquatic gold. A lifelong scholar of the seafood industry from harvest to table who began his career as a commercial fisherman more than 30 years ago, Rowley got the bandwagon rolling. The year: 1983.
He'd tasted the fish years before, and knew there was something different, something deliciously and delicately tender, about it. "I was working as a consultant for four restaurants in Seattle—McCormick's Fish House, Ray's, Triples, and another owned by [Victor] Rossellini.
"I told them I was working on a project in Alaska with a gill-netter from Cordova named Tommy Thompson that would result in bringing to market here the best salmon in the world."
The four restaurants ordered a total of only 400 pounds. It was all an experiment, recounts Rowley, now a contributing editor to Saveur. "So I had it flown down on Alaska Air and had it delivered. They put it on the menu at Ray's, and I remember the waiters kept coming back to the kitchen, going, 'My God, the customers are saying they've never had salmon like that in their life.'
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