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.
CORRECTION An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Peter Knutson. The story has been corrected.
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.’
“The Copper River and salmon in general has become more than just food around here,” Rowley says. “It has become a ritual. It marks the beginning of a season.”
But is it overrated? Does the mystique of the Copper River’s king and sockeye salmon live up to their much-ballyhooed billing?
“I buy into the hype,” says restaurateur Ethan Stowell. “Is there, like, a night-and-day difference? No. Is it a thousand times better than other salmon? No. But it is the filet mignon of salmon, and you really, because of its seasonality, can’t think of the cost.”
“I think it is awesome fish,” exclaims super-chef Thierry Rautureau, who recently opened Loulay in downtown Seattle. “And all the attention the Copper River gets is great for all wild salmon. It benefits everyone.”
Restaurant chieftain Tom Douglas agrees. “I love it, and I love the ceremony that surrounds it. It has raised the value of all other salmon. In certain years, the Copper River is the best salmon I’ve ever had.”
Still, the price can be intimidating. Walter Pisano, the chef at Tulio, seldom offers Copper River. “Too spendy,” he says. “Yes, it is a wonderful fish, but we’ve kind of put it up on a pedestal, even though we in the Northwest are surrounded by other great options in terms of salmon.”
Craig Medred, a prize-winning outdoor writer for the Anchorage Daily News and more recently the online Alaska Dispatch, is weary of all the praise Copper River salmon has garnered. As he wrote for the Dispatch two years ago, “What we’ve got here is not a taste game. What we’ve got here is a marketing game. Fishermen in Cordova have played it masterfully . . . But there’s a problem here. In blind-tasting at our house, even people who profess their love for the Copper River fish have regularly picked the Kenai River fish as tastier.
“Now, granted, it might just be a strange coincidence based on the quality of the tasters. We have some friends who can’t tell a nouveau Beaujolais from a really good Oregon pinot noir. Wine’s wine, you know. Well, not quite. But salmon really is salmon.”
Why, even Rowley himself told Seattle Weekly some years ago that in a “side-by-side taste test,” Yukon River salmon was superior because its long journey—some 2,000 miles, compared to 300 on the Copper River—had made it the oilier, and thereby tastier, of the two fish.
“These guys have done some great marketing, but there’s no better fish than the Frazier River sockeye,” posits Peter Knutson, an influential observer of the seafood industry who now teaches “Food and Politics” at Seattle Central Community College. “And yes, in reality, a salmon is just a salmon.”
As for Leslie Kelly, a veteran food writer and current editor of Zagat Seattle, she says, “I love Copper River king salmon. And I will eat it as often as I can—as long as someone else is picking up the tab.”