In a season when eating local usually means a whiter plate of pale, the trout is served in Technicolor. The lentils are the color of cocoa, the piccalilli of summer beans preserved in mustard a deep gold. An emerald drizzle of pureed Turkish parsley circles the plate, and, in the center of it all is a six-ounce fillet of steelhead peppered with its own lustrous roe. The skin is seared and crackles like a potato chip. The fish is cooked a perfect medium rare: The soft coral flesh flakes with the slightest pressure, and the center retains the gentle glow it had when the whole fish met chef Brendan McGill’s wickedly curved knife not an hour earlier.
It’s a wintry Saturday night at McGill’s restaurant, Hitchcock, on Bainbridge Island. The row of seats at the bar is full and lit with flickering banks of tea lights. The worn church pew by the front door will soon be filled with bodies waiting for a table. The trout entree is listed on the dinner menu, just one display of McGill’s commitment—one he shares with most of his Seattle-area chef contemporaries—to local and seasonal sourcing.
The steelhead is Washington’s state fish; its sojourn in saltwater gives it scales the color of charcoal that give way to black speckles, then a gleaming chrome belly. They can weigh as much as 40 pounds, but this time of year they’re more likely to be about nine, and the length of a man’s shoulder span. Unlike rainbow trout, these fish head to the sea once they’re mature, fighting to get back upriver when it’s time to spawn.
The appeal lies in its rich, red flesh, which is similar to salmon. “It’s very of the moment, seasonally,” says McGill, as he works his scimitar-style knife through the charcoal-and-silver-scaled body on a white cutting board before dinner service. A single fish produces 14 fillets, plus a pair each of cheeks, collar, and two strips of marbled belly meat. These are set aside on a small tray for anyone who orders the chef’s tasting menu. McGill uses a spoon to scrape meat off of the spine to make tartare. Another fish is packed in ice and stored upright in the restaurant’s walk-in cooler, “like it’s still swimming.”
Putting steelhead on the menu can incite letters, or even protests, from people who fish as a hobby. To sport anglers, the pursuit of the steelhead is the fly-fishing equivalent of pitching a perfect baseball game while simultaneously having a religious experience. In other words, subjecting this rare and beautiful creature to commonplace harvesting and cooking is like carving up a 20-point buck to make venison burgers.
Preston Onkst is a surfer who takes orders via text message and doesn’t return calls if he doesn’t know you; he only works with chefs who take fishery management as seriously as he does. Like most of the fish Onkst buys, the steelhead is closely monitored by government agencies from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to the National Marine Fisheries Service (and their tribal counterparts). Each fall this group forecasts how many steelhead will return to the rivers from the ocean and how many are needed to spawn at the hatcheries upriver. The surplus is what can be fished, commercially or for sport. This year that means more than 4,000 steelhead in the entire Quillayute River system. Washington’s tight management of fish caught in our waters is second only to Alaska. Onkst has a license to sell fish, and the man he buys it from is licensed to catch it.
Eating sustainably is part of Seattle’s fabric. We subscribe to CSAs and buy kale at the farmers market from the very person who picked it. Your average neighborhood restaurant server can speak at length about the provenance of the potatoes and the farm that delivered that hanger steak. But the Northwest’s signature protein source breeds confusion at best, misinformation at worst. According to the NOAA, 91 percent of the seafood Americans eat comes from another country. Sure, that number is probably lower around here. Nevertheless, it astounds.
Urgent issues currently crowd Washington’s seafood landscape. We have a state agency committed to the long-term course correction of decades of overfishing. The carbon dioxide we emit makes the ocean increasingly acidic, which has been shown to prevent oysters from forming shells. Up in Alaska, the proposed Pebble Mine project would carve the continent’s largest pit mine in the Bristol Bay watershed, contaminating the salmon equivalent of the nation’s breadbasket and supplier of half the world’s sockeye. Meanwhile, those of us who eat seafood carry on a quietly fractured relationship with the waterways that surround us.
Getting good fish in Seattle is not a problem. Oysters, crab, and other shellfish still come from Washington waters, but much of the rest comes from somewhere else. There just isn’t enough to go around. Seafood restaurants that speckle our waterfronts serve salmon from Alaska and halibut from Canada. Maybe a dozen large commercial boats catch black cod off Neah Bay, but half send every last one to Japan. Onkst deals in whole fish, omitting the processing step that can send a catch to Portland—or even China—to be cut into fillets. He’s constantly surprised by chefs who don’t know how to break down a fish. Once a restaurant even asked to return one after several unsuccessful fillet attempts.
I had arranged to meet Onkst at a secluded park and ride outside Port Angeles. In a scene reminiscent of a hokey after-school special, he pulled up in a beat-up white Ford van, rolled down the window, and invited me to hop in and take a ride. Onkst’s shoulder-length brown hair, grizzled gray chin scruff, and serious hazel eyes would have made him a bang-up extra on Deadwood. He even named his tiny company Wild West.
When he’s not foraging for mushrooms, Onkst spends his days driving that van around the Olympic Peninsula to buy whatever fish is in season in its three major waterways. Perhaps coho salmon on the Hoh, line-caught king salmon in the Quillayute River, or black cod up in Neah Bay. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he and his one employee—a 17-year-old with a pickup truck—drive into Seattle to deliver their catch to about 12 restaurants that include Luc, Rover’s, and Local 360 in Seattle and Four Swallows and Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island.
And like someone who has secured a good babysitter—or pot dealer—he doesn’t divulge details on where he procures this most finite resource.
His fish isn’t organic; something that spends its adult life in the wild technically can’t be. The nongovernmental Marine Stewardship Council makes rigorous study of vessels and fishing practices, but rare is the boat that can afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars to earn the council’s sustainability certification. Chef Seth Caswell, who ran Emmer and Rye and is widely regarded as one of the most sustainability-minded chefs in Seattle, bought from Onkst because he asks the same questions about fishing practices that Caswell would himself if he were standing on that dock.
Though at this particular moment, Onkst isn’t on a dock. He’s in his van, parked on the pebbly beach along the Hoh River, 25 miles south of Forks and just beneath where the mittened thumb of the Olympic Peninsula nudges international waters. He uses a handheld grinder to crush up buds of marijuana, which he smokes thoughtfully out of an avocado-green vaporizer. He waits for the boats to return to shore with steelhead for him to buy. By law, Native Americans are entitled to half of Washington’s harvestable fish surplus. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife dedicates its portion to sport anglers, so any steelhead caught commercially comes from a tribal fishery.
Here, the equivalent of an Old West land race plays out every Monday morning. It’s the winter run for steelhead trout, and by 10am Michael Sampson has to be ready in the frigid waters of the Hoh River where it meets the Pacific Ocean. That’s when the weekly fishing window—dictated by tribal council—opens. During steelhead season the window lasts 48 hours, until 10am Wednesday. When the clock strikes, Sampson, his father, and their fellow fishermen race through the river, seeking the most promising shallow riffles to set up their gillnets.
Baby faced and 33 years old, Sampson sports a neat haircut and glasses with rectangular frames that make him look more like a mortgage broker than a fisherman. And for good reason—he spent seven years in the mortgage industry before his employer went bankrupt in 2008, leading him home to learn his father’s trade. The glasses can be maddening when he’s maneuvering through the slate-green waters. But contact lenses are no good in the high winds that blow off the ocean.
He propels a 15-foot aluminum boat—shorter than a Toyota Camry—up and down this glacier-fed waterway. He will repeat variations on this pattern in rain, hail, or even the occasional sunbreak, as steelhead season gives way to king salmon in the summer. Come fall, he’ll be fishing coho.
In May, when each hand-over-hand unfurling of the net might bring in 30 king salmon, Sampson pays a local restaurant to ferry meals to his boat so he doesn’t lose time, fish, and money. But today, just two steelhead flop on the boat’s floor by 1pm. So he motors upriver, away from the rushing ocean, to let his 162-foot net into the water once again. Sometimes he repeats this exercise 400 times in the course of a day. As many as 30 mind-numbing repetitions might go by without catching a damn thing.
Finally, the day’s third steelhead awaits in a net set earlier in the day near the riverbank. Its silvery scales bear few marks from its brief entanglement, but the really bad news is the gash at the base of its tail. “This was a $13 fish; now it’s a $4 fish,” says Sampson, heaving it onto the boat’s well-worn floor next to the others. By 4pm he is back on the pebble-paved shore, drinking a Red Bull while Onkst’s assistant cleans the day’s catch—six steelhead, 57 pounds—and harvests the vivid orange roe from their insides on the back of a maroon pickup truck.
Tracking fish from source to chef, as these steelhead can be tracked from the Hoh River to Sampson’s boat, to Onkst’s van, and McGill’s kitchen, would be virtually impossible for most of the fish that crosses our plates. Foreign seafood—nine-tenths of what our country consumes—must list its country of origin, but it’s impossible to discern when it was caught and frozen, how it was fished, or even if a fillet listed as albacore is actually albacore at all. Imagine trying to identify the variety and origin of another iconic Washington product, the apple, if what you bought at the store was merely a peeled slice rather than the whole. Kevin Davis, long a leader among Seattle’s seafood chefs, pays the higher prices to serve only domestic seafood at his downtown restaurant Blueacre, honing that commitment to only Pacific Northwest catch at nearby Steelhead Diner. “Outside of the international water line, it’s the Wild West,” he says. “Anything can happen. It probably does.” And like someone who has secured a good babysitter—or pot dealer—he doesn’t divulge details on where he procures this most finite resource.
The great awakening in how we source our food is happening much more slowly when it comes to the water. To be fair, a fish’s maturation is more elusive than that of a head of kale. This steelhead’s clipped adipose fin flags it as hatchery raised, meaning it started life as an egg in an incubator, then released into the river when it’s roughly the size of a Polish sausage and ready to make its way to the ocean. Come winter, the urge to spawn draws these fish back to the same waterway where they started this journey. Nearly 90 percent of steelhead caught in our waters bear hatchery markings, part of the massive effort to preserve this resource and make sure we still have steelhead 10, 30, or 50 years from now. Every stage of this fish’s life has been planned and accounted for, from birth right up to the moment it swims into Sampson’s waiting gillnet to begin a different journey entirely.
Published: February 2013