Schoolhouse Chef’s Salmon Adventure to Alaska is Wilton Diners’ Gain

Last September Tim LaBant, chef and owner of The Schoolhouse at Cannondale & Tim LaBant Events, was presented with an opportunity he considers one of the highlights of his career as a chef. He was invited to travel to Cordova, Alaska, to be the guest chef for the city’s Wild Harvest Feast, a salmon dinner benefitting the Copper River Watershed Project (CRWP). LaBant’s opportunity means Wilton’s opportunity when he shows off everything he learned at a special Salmon Dinner on Wednesday, June 8.

LaBant, who’s known for his farm-to-table approach to fine dining, is also passionate about sustainability and understanding where and how the food he uses is grown and harvested. While in Cordova, he was treated to a five-day Copper River Coho Tour, where he got a first-hand look at the salmon fishery and was able to meet the people devoted to maintaining sustainability within the salmon industry. Leaders in the area describe sustainability as “not only a word, it is a focus and a force” that the entire community embraces and that has kept family fishermen harvesting wild Copper River Salmon for decades.

The Wilton chef’s adventure kicked off with a trip to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and a tour of one of its research vessels where he discovered why the Copper River is so special. Well-known for its salmon runs⎯more than two million salmon spawn there each year⎯the river is populated by several different varieties of salmon, making it an ideal spot for the commercial salmon industry. The season for commercial fishing begins in May, with peak season in August and September when spawning runs occur.

LaBant learned about the laws regulating the fishing industry, the methods used to ensure sustainability is maintained, and the incredible life cycle of Pacific wild salmon—specifically King, Sockeye and Coho. These species make their spawning runs up the Copper River in that order each year, beginning in May and ending in September. They are especially valued by fishermen and consumers for their high Omega 3 fat content.

The focus on sustainability begins with protecting the watershed ecosystem and that many are involved in this process:   the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the commercial Copper River fishermen and fisherwomen (there are only 541 permits given by the state), small non-profits like Copper River Watershed Project, as well as most of the 2,316 inhabitants of Cordova. What’s most important is making sure that enough salmon reach spawning grounds before fishing starts; that ensures long-term, continued repopulation.

Not only did LaBant have the chance to witness the salmon at a spawning viewing, he then toured several commercial fishing boats as well as Ocean Beauty Seafoods Processor in order to get a feel for how salmon are caught, stored and delivered so that they can be made available fresh and in cans to the public. He even got the chance to head out on the Eyak River for a sport fishing expedition, reeling in several big Cohos (which he brought home to share with friends and  family). He also was welcomed into one of the local residents’ homes, to share homemade food and stories with several fishermen.

Among the things he learned is how integral the salmon are to the many family businesses in commercial salmon fishing as well as subsistence households and sport fishing guide businesses in the small, isolated communities throughout the region. Just as key as the salmon are to human commerce, so too is the salmon life cycle critical to nature:  the majestic landscape is also home to brown and black bears, bald eagles, and other fish and wildlife that depend on the return of salmon for their survival.

It all drove home the importance of eating wild salmon, supporting sustainable fisheries and protecting our watershed ecosystems, and reinforced the reasons for learning the story behind the food.

From River to Plate 

Chef LaBant is taking everything he learned to offer diners an amazing opportunity not only to hear the story he shares of his Alaskan experience but also to taste how he has taken that knowledge and infused his skill and creativity in the kitchen. On Wednesday, June 8, at 7 p.m., he will host a Wild Watershed, Wild Salmon Dinner at The Schoolhouse at Cannondale. 

He will welcome Kristin Carpenter of Copper River Watershed Project, who will be arriving from Cordova, Alaska with fresh Copper River Sockeye and King salmon, caught by the very fishermen that Tim had an opportunity to get to know. He’ll prepare a 4-course salmon feast to enjoy along with the story behind the salmon on the plate, how it got there and what it takes to manage a sustainable salmon fishery.

Fresh and smoked sockeye salmon as well as fresh King salmon will be featured on the menu. The cost to reserve a spot is $75 per person (beverage pairings are also available for extra charge). Limited seating is available.

To take part in the dinner, call The Schoolhouse at Cannondale at 203.834.9816 to reserve a seat. A portion of proceeds from the event will support the Copper River Watershed Project’s work in fish passage, habitat monitoring, and watershed education to sustain the health of wild salmon, the backbone of the region’s cultures, communities and economies.

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