Truly Fresh Salmon, in a True Chef's Hands


Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

At my restaurant, Providence, I take great pride in the variety and freshness of our fish. Most days, I am on the phone with my purveyors before my first cup of coffee, talking about what is available and what is not. The favorite part of my workday is the time I spend cutting fish in our refrigerated fish room.

The glass-enclosed "fish box," with waist-high commercial refrigerators on either side, is not terribly special. The contents of the room are sparse but integral to the task at hand: two sinks, sharp knives, a scaler, a really large cutting board to accommodate large fish, tweezers to remove the tiniest of bones, and a fairly sophisticated scale. I love to cut fish. I relish it. I love to teach people how to cut fish. I hold my breath every time I make the first cut; it steadies my hand and increases concentration. That room is the foundation for everything we do here at Providence. Mishandling fish so early in the process compromises everything. That's why you will find me in the "fish box" most every day.

Its flesh curled a bit as it cooked slowly on the grill, a sign of the vitality still present in the muscle.

Our menu is comprised of fish from all over the world: Japan, New Zealand, the North Atlantic, the Mid-Atlantic, Washington State, California, Europe, and, of course, Alaska. We are able to get most everything 24 to 48 hours after it is removed from the sea. Recently I was invited by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to observe the commercial salmon fisheries. I jumped at the chance to go to Alaska and close that 24-hour gap. As a life-long fisherman, I have always thought that one of the great pleasures of fishing is keeping a fish or two for the table. Filleting and cooking a fish just hours after it was pulled from the sea is about as close to a religious experience as I can imagine.

On a fairly large vessel named the Alaska Dawn, outside the harbor in Sand Point, we collected several hundred pounds of sockeye salmon; a few cod, which were considered by-catch; and, through the generosity of the small fleet, about 125 pounds of still live Alaskan king salmon. Each of these fish was about 20 pounds, a couple perhaps pushing 30. Just pulled from the nets, they were weak but still alive. King salmon are as beautiful an animal as you will find in the sea—a brilliant silver as they arrive in fresh water, taking on a rainbow of colors as they continue toward their spawning site and their eventual demise. There were more fish then I could have hoped for. These kings were plump and muscular, twitching occasionally as they lay on the deck. They were about to make a lot of people very happy.


Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

I filleted a few sockeye, two cod, and two king salmon. I was concerned about paying the fish their propers while the boat pitched at three-quarters throttle towards Sand Point. I wish I would have brought a few of my Nenox knives. I don't think the salmon noticed. I of course did, but I kept it to myself.

Later, at the Sand Point community center, a sizable percentage of the town had shown up to meet us. Our group consisted of a few writers (including Corby Kummer and Marion Nestle), one chef, and several members of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. The Sand Point residents all pitched in with casseroles, a few cakes, and some bush berry bars (a local treat made with a bluish berry that seems happy to grow on the tundra). Bob, a local fisherman, and I were shown the grill and given a few rudimentary ingredients: salt, pepper, lemons, and onions. We also had a set of those absurdly long grilling tools that home-grilling aficionados seem never to be without.

First I grilled a piece of the sockeye and then followed it up with cod, halibut, and some big chunks of the king salmon.

Unfortunately, the king had slipped into rigor mortis over the course of the day. Its flesh was very tasty, but the texture left something to be desired. The cod was a revelation. I remember that when I was filleting one of the cod its flesh twitched as the knife passed through it. Cod when properly cooked does marvelous things. The connective tissues, which hold the filets together, break down, offering the eater glistening, luxurious flakes of translucent flesh.


Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

The halibut was small by Alaska standards. I cut the fish into four fillets and cooked each of the filets whole. Its flesh curled a bit as it cooked slowly on the grill, a sign of the vitality still present in the muscle. I grilled the fillets for a minute or two on each side and then allowed them to rest. The flesh was just warmed through so it flaked with gentle pressure. It was a small fish, so it didn't have big lavish flakes like its momma might have, but it was great nonetheless.

For me, the star of the night was the sockeye salmon, a favorite of the Sand Point locals, referred to as "the money fish." The sockeye is a much smaller fish than the king salmon. I grilled it for about 10 minutes on the skin side exclusively, with the grilled closed. This allows the grill to act as an oven. By never exposing the flesh of the salmon to the direct heat of the grill grates, you allow the fish to cook slowly and evenly.

The sockeye was a startling red color. When cooked, the flesh was firm and deep in flavor. The thin layer between the crisp, salty skin and the flesh was fatty and sweet. Most of the people assembled grill-side ate the fish with their hands, myself included. I think that might have been part of what made the fish taste so good, so natural, so wild, and so much like Alaska.