By now you may have heard the 30-year tale of this epic love affair. It begins with a long, cold morning on the water in Alaska, waves crashing up the sides of a fishing vessel, strong young men hauling up their catch, muscles flexing in yellow rain slickers. We meet taciturn local seafood savior Jon Rowley, protagonist, and his one true love (well, besides oysters): the Copper River salmon. He was hooked on her from the beginning.
It’s 1983 and Rowley’s quest is simple: to share his adoration of this rich, wild diva with the world. He knows she’s a star, being mistreated and shoved in a can or a freezer. In a musical montage, set to “Islands in the Stream,” Rowley teaches the fishermen how to work their nets to keep the oil-rich fish in the most pristine condition possible. Ice overflows onto the deck and they celebrate in their success.
Back in Seattle, Rowley and his starlet have made it for her first season debut. The red carpet unrolls on the tarmac; the plane door opens, and there’s a flurry of flash bulbs as Rowley and his rosy lady emerge, he looks to her, longingly and says, “We’ve made it, kid.”
Well, that’s how I imagine it at least, because we have a bizarre habit of casting Rowley as the romantic lead when it comes to seafood.
Yesterday, May 16, was the 30th anniversary of fresh Copper River salmon making its way to Seattle menus and dinner plates. Fishing season opened at 7am and Pacific Northwest planes were waiting and ready to head back down to bring us our catch. Thanks in large part to Rowley, the fish's arrival is now an endearingly quirky Seattle tradition, the fish has become a brand name and marketing juggernaut, and we now have a month of the year to eat as much fresh Copper River salmon as we can. Here are a few places to do just that—and an advance thanks to these Seattle chefs who are preparing it for us.
Salty’s on Alki
Getting a jump on the competition, Salty’s on Alki and Pacific Seafood joined forces to be the first to deliver Copper River salmon to Seattle. Salty’s owner Gerry Kingen and chef Jeremy McLachlan flew up to Cordova, Alaska to make the catch. They got the first king of the season off the boat, and they headed back on a privately chartered plane, landing at 11pm on Thursday at Sea-Tac. So while all the other planes are just getting in this morning, Salty’s is already serving up the first dish of the season to celebrity first-taster Almost Live alum John Keister at 11am.
On May 29, Chef Kevin Davis will celebrate the 30th anniversary with a four-course tasting menu for $65 per person. The menu will feature a lot more than just Copper River. Start with a selection of Northwest seafood bites, followed by a grilled asparagus salad with burrata. For the main course, a slow-roasted Copper River king with morels, and a dessert of panna cotta to finish. Each dish will be paired with wine. And a tribute to Rowley will be part of the night’s festivities.
As one of the first four Seattle restaurants to offer Copper River salmon in 1983, of course, Ray’s is going all out for this anniversary. Chef Wayne Johnson will be offering a series of three-course tasting menus in June for $40 and half-off bottles of pinot noir. Dishes like grilled Copper River sockeye with smoked morels and nettles or crispy-skinned king with braised fennel and a pinot noir-mustard sauce will grace the menu.