Photo by Regina Charboneau
After attending several Southern universities in the mid-'70s, I decided to head north to Alaska with a group of friends from Louisiana State University. My goal was to earn money to go to cooking school in Paris. We did not use the word "culinary" then; it was "cooking," and there were very few, if any, women in the kitchen in the early days of my cooking career.
In retrospect I'm sure that I aged my parents about 20 years in a year's time. The phone call they received was something like, "Guess what? I have a job cooking at a construction camp in the bush of Alaska."
My parents gave me free rein for adventure; Alaska gave me the opportunity to go school in Paris; and Paris made me brave enough to open my restaurant in San Francisco.
Now that I am a mother, I cannot imagine the scramble of words in my mother's brain: "Construction camp...Construction workers...My daughter...Wilderness...Yikes!" Thirty years later, as I sit writing a blog on my Mac in Natchez, Miss., it is obvious we all survived my adventures.
Alaska was a lot of things to me. It was the place I where I transformed from protected Southern belle to self-sufficient woman. Cooking out in the bush was a growing experience itself. It was the place where I genuinely learned to appreciate the beauty of nature. I never became an "outdoors person," but I loved the experience to learn enough to know my idea of going into the wild would be going to nightclubs in San Francisco, Paris, or New York.
Alaska also let me experience salmon in every possible way one person might: cooked, pickled, cured, dried, and smoked. As always, I adapted to my new environment--the "bush of Alaska"--Egegik, Kokhanok, and my favorite, Chignik Lake. I even learned and enjoyed salmon fishing. Although I grew up pronouncing it "sal-mon."
Like many things in life, I did not think I liked sal-mon until I tried it. If you are going to try something you don't think you have a taste for, try it at the highest level before you decide. For example: caviar, beluga; ballet, Zakharova; opera, Jessye Norman. And salmon? Wild-caught and fresh.
My parents gave me free rein for adventure; Alaska gave me the opportunity to go school in Paris; and Paris made me brave enough to open my restaurant in San Francisco. Having a restaurant and offering a daily "fish du jour," I experimented with salmon many a day.
No matter how much I tried to stray from my Southern roots, I couldn't, and even my favorite salmon recipes ended up with a Southern accent. Two of my favorite recipes were grilled salmon in my father's black pepper marinade that he used for poach oysters and my recipe for seared salmon with a bacon-molasses vinaigrette.