Copper River cook-off
May 21, 2013
By Peter Clark
Local chefs participate in culinary competition with fresh Alaskan salmon
Local chefs gave the first Copper River salmon of the season the red carpet treatment. Then, they cooked it.
Early in the grey, drizzly morning of May 17, more than 50 members of the media, the culinary world and Alaska Airlines executive staff waited along the Sea-Tac Airport tarmac for the fish to be flown in from the southern Alaskan wilds.
With fanfare and an actual red carpet making its way from the pressure-locked door to the television cameras, the 42-pound king salmon was brought directly to a fillet table and divided between the chefs for a 30-minute cook off. The large fish, proudly held up for display by the airplane’s captain and first officer, had been caught just 12 hours before.
For the first time in the annual competition, Issaquah-based restaurant Wildfin Grill was one of those up for the title of Copper River King. Along with John Howie, of Seastar Restaurant, Pat Donahue, of Anthony’s Restaurants’, and chef Master Sgt. Robert Shulman, representing the 446th Airlift Wing out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wildfin executive chef Chris Bryant arrived at the cargo base at 4:30 a.m. to light their grills and prepare their stations.
Bryant said that it was their relationship with Copper River Seafoods, one of the three processors that shipped that morning, that led to their inclusion in the event.
“We have a real strong partnership and they give us a great product,” he said, and then described his dish of grilled salmon with spring morels and asparagus. “The basis of it is to prepare it simply. You use what’s in season, and that’s how you make it work.”
He said he was very excited to be invited to cook against some of the more veteran competitors who had won in previous events.
“It’s a little wet, a little early and a little windy,” he said. “But, you get a group of competitive chefs together and it can get a little dicey.”
With cooks Steve Gappmayer and Tim Chism by Bryant’s side, they went to work effectively and with confidence as the expertly filleted salmon was given to them.
Despite the early hour, the tented area buzzed with talk about the event, the food and the judges who would decide the winner. Announced and ribbed by master of ceremonies KIRO DJ John Curley, four judges had the honor of being the first to dine on the spring’s Copper River fish. Chief Master Sgt. Tony Mack, Alaska Airlines’ Vice President Jeff Butler, “Deadliest Catch” deckhand Mike Fourtner and Seattle Mariners Hall of Famer Jay Buhner all wore grins as chefs proffered plate after plate to them for an odd, yet appetizing breakfast.
“Every year for more than a decade, Alaska Airlines has been trying to hold events like this,” airline Media Relations Manager Bobbie Egan said. “This is the fourth year for the Copper Chef Cook-Off and we have really great competition.”
She said this was the first time they included the chef from McChord, and were very pleased to have him along.
“This is a really awesome Northwest rite of passage, and we are honoring our military service men and women,” she said. “Who would have thought you can enjoy salmon at Sea-Tac airport at 7 a.m.?”
In the end, Wildfin finished fourth out of the four, though it was awarded a medal and many compliments about the fine food. It was Seastar Restaurant’s Howie that the judges voted to win.
Bryant spoke lightly about the man who taught him “everything he knows” besting him in the cook off and said he was just glad to be a part of the event.
“I at least wanted to bump ahead of him,” he joked about Howie. “It was fun. He’s a good guy and he deserves it.”