How this fishing chef takes salmon from ocean to table

Jun 29, 2018

Salmon usually pass through many hands on their way from ocean waves to the table, but not for Christopher Wang of San Francisco. He’s a deckhand on the F/V Marion Ruth who single-handedly completes most of the salmon supply chain as a fisherman, direct marketer and private chef all rolled into one.

Christopher Wang, 46, grills up the first king salmon of the season for a party the night before the F/V Marion Ruth puts in Dillingham's harbor.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

When fresh produce arrives in rural Alaska, it’s an event. People know how tough it is to get greens or berries across the tundra from farms down south. Casual shoppers elsewhere may not be so appreciative.

"As a chef, when you see how something's caught or how it's killed, even, there's a real value to what it is as a resource. It's a little bit different than just going to a store and buying something off a shelf and being like, 'Oh, vegetables grow on the shelves in grocery stores!'" fishing chef Christopher Wang said.

He knows better than most people just how much work it takes to carry Bristol Bay salmon from ocean to table. After first fishing Alaskan waters in the early ‘90s, he eventually became a private chef on tall ships. He single-handedly represents several links in the ocean-to-table chain because he also runs the Gypsy Fish Company, a direct-to-market salmon vendor in San Francisco.

"That's really where I'm interested in is making that connection of taking people and putting them in a place as well, so they actually can really taste and understand the story of salmon and the magic of what it is. We always talk about it as a communion. You're eating something that's given its life," Wang said. "Even though they live in a building in California, they can feel like these regions that are supporting such a wild thing need to be protected."

Pebble Mine is the primary danger Wang named as threatening salmon. Although he now uses the Gypsy Fish Company to advocate sustainability and conservation, it started out much simpler.

Freshly filleted king salmon sits ready to cook as deckhand Christopher Wang fires up his grill behind the F/V Marion Ruth in Dillingham.
Credit Austin Fast / KDLG

"When you're on the back of a fishing boat you're always just talking with your buddy about bla bla bla, whatever. We were just talking about how awesome it would be to have a freezer full of salmon for myself. I started bringing salmon back, and then a lot of my friends wanted it," Wang said. "I saw there was an opportunity to sell it to my cooking clients as well, so that business was born out of that really."

Suffice it to say the crew on the F/V Marion Ruth is eating pretty well this season with Wang manning the cabin stove. Instead of a packing a month's worth of Ramen noodles, he marinated and froze larger cuts of meat. He’s aiming for homemade bagels, pizza and bread but definitely will cook salmon, cabbage, rice and lots of sauces.

"Something that you can have slow-cooking on the stove and run back out on deck and it's not going to be terrible when you come back," Wang said. "I think I'm pretty good on the back deck, too. That's just a value-add is cooking skills. It's also something that I can take off of (my skipper's) plate so he doesn't have to worry about it. ... My job is to keep his mind clear so he can just worry about finding fish."

We spoke mid-June as Wang seasoned his first king salmon of the year just caught by a Nushagak set netter.

"I'm pretty excited," he said. "We're just going to grill it straight up and have it without anything else but salt and pepper and see what it tastes like."

As far as tips for cooking amateurs, Wang warned not to overcook salmon. He said pulling fish off the grill a bit early is fine because the meat will retain heat and continue to cook. Second, freeze salmon before eating it to kill off any parasites. And finally, don't swamp it in sauce. 

"Let the meat speak for itself," Wang suggested.

Gypsy Fish Company customers in the San Francisco Bay area are listening. Although some just want a good deal on salmon, others host dinners and fundraisers to promote salmon conservation, Wang said.

"A lot of them are looking on Instagram following what we're doing right now. It's super fun to really bring a place and a taste to somebody and tell them about where it comes from and how it's caught," Wang said.

He plans to push his salmon evangelism even further through work with the nonprofit Salmon State. They're releasing a toolkit this fall to walk other direct marketers through the steps of becoming salmon advocates.

Contact the author at austin@kdlg.org or 907-842-5281.