Catching Up to the Copper River’s King

It’s an annual arrival, say its patient disciples, much sweeter and more satisfying than Pedro Guerrero’s first ball of summer into the left field seats. Or that seasonal glimpse of California grays on their huge glide to the Baja. Or the first mussels of October dunked in a cream and Calvados broth.

“It’s like anything else,” breathes Bill Waistes. “When you can’t have it, you want it a little bit more, and when you finally get it, you enjoy it just that much more.”

Today, Waistes finally gets it to enjoy. So do others of his culinary persuasion who have been expectant for 11 months--awaiting the Los Angeles arrival of the Copper River King Salmon from Alaska.


“Of all the salmons, this is the best of the best,” explained Waistes, executive chef of Restaurants Unlimited. And that, many believe, is better than Nova Scotia, even Scottish salmon. “It has a full, moist, complex flavor of several nuances . . . and to compare it to other salmon is like comparing Porcini mushrooms from Italy to ordinary California mushrooms.”

Chefs and gourmands have been monitoring the Copper River catch, its delivery schedule and Alaska’s conservation-minded limits (just 500 tons of Copper River Kings, with fishing restricted to two days of each week for only four weeks) closer than the NBA playoffs.

The fish were netted Monday. Chilled but not frozen, they were air-freighted to Los Angeles and other eager cities and nations (Japan, Canada and some in Europe) on Thursday.

Today, their broiling and basting is under way in fewer than two dozen local restaurants and these, at least, are known: Cutters in Santa Monica, Stepps in Los Angeles, Capistrano in the Embassy Suites Hotel at LAX and Simon & Seaforts in Long Beach. The Velvet Turtle chain, with 15 restaurants in Southern California, will also be offering Copper River King.

“Even without any advertising or promotion to customers, we have had a lot of people calling in this week asking if the salmon has arrived,” said Reinhard Dorfhuber of San Francisco, executive chef for Velvet Turtle. “It probably is the most-awaited thing we do . . . more so than the first Maine lobster or the Long Island oysters or Alaskan halibut.”

Dorfhuber’s chefs poach their salmon in Chardonnay with a wine and fresh sorrel cream sauce. Or they will broil the fish in lemon-dill butter. Waistes prefers broiling over mesquite and basting with basil-garlic, hazelnut or tarragon butters.

Whatever the method, said Dorfhuber and Waistes, all must be concerned with preserving the quality and integrity of the Copper River Kings.

“To spawn, all salmon return to the exact place where they were spawned, and so the species adapts to that particular environment,” Waistes explained. “The Copper River is long and rugged and so the salmon, over tens of thousands of years, have had to build up tremendous quantities of protein, fat and oils, to sustain themselves on the spawning run.

“That oil content is high, bright red, and that’s what gives the fat Copper River King its complex flavor.”

Then, Dorfhuber said, comes the preparation. The salmon must be fileted for tenderness and not cut into steaks. It cannot be frozen and should be shipped immediately after netting.

“Our salmon is flown in fresh three times a week,” he said. “It is out of the water and on the table in about 36 hours.”

Less than 15 tons of the precious fish will find its way into Southern California restaurants. Depending on the bistro, prices should range from $16.95 to $18.95 for 8-ounce portions.

One slippery harbinger was to have been available for a Los Angeles press testing this week. It was caught, it was packed, it was airlifted from Anchorage.

But somewhere between there and here, the salmon followed the lead of countless pieces of baggage since Orville Wright’s lunch pail, and quietly disappeared.

The possibilities are endless.

The most horrific is that somewhere out there, as we speak, someone has boiled the first Copper River King of the season and is shredding it into a salmon fajita pita.