CORDOVA, ALASKA It was a scene of almost orgiastic gluttony: a tabletop covered with the remnants of literally hundreds of dollars' worth of Copper River salmon.
Barbecue glazed coho salmon with roasted corn-black bean relish and collard greens, poached pink salmon fillets with citrus buerre blanc, king salmon tartare on crispy salmon-skin chips.
There were even meatballs made of chum salmon, the least-loved (to put it as nicely as possible) of the five Copper River species. Even as disdained as chum or "keta" salmon is, though, the "chumballs" with salmon berries were gobbled up by partygoers as quickly as anything else at the table that night in July.
This party was the end of a group of food writers' five-day trip to Cordova, a celebration with local fishermen and foodies of everything the Copper River has to offer. Everyone was eating it up.
Alaska's Copper River is one of the great meccas of salmon fishing, renowned worldwide because the salmon have to pack on a lot of fat tasty, juicy fat to make the 300-mile journey up the river to their spawning grounds. If you see the words "Copper River salmon" on a menu, you can expect it to be sumptuous. And spendy.
Of course, if you see salmon on the menu at any of the restaurants in Cordova, where the Copper River salmon fishing fleet is based, count yourself lucky.
Part of the reason is that when fisherman have finished a long day (or long weeks) on the water, the last thing they want to order at a restaurant is salmon. But it's also because no one needs to go out to a restaurant to eat great salmon in Cordova.
"This town has a a lot of great home cooks," said Jeremy Storm, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who is head chef at Cordova's Orca Adventure Lodge.
Raised in Pennsylvania, Storm initially came to Cordova on a two-week stint as private chef for a group from the National Wildlife Federation, and later returned to work as a raft guide on the Copper River.
In Cordova, he discovered that salmon actually tasted good. Growing up knowing only farmed Atlantic salmon, most of the work he'd done with it in professional kitchens was designed to mask its flavor, not celebrate it.
Now salmon is Storm's culinary playground. His latest thing? "I've been having a hell of a good time cold-smoking it."
When a commercial fisherman friend of his brought him a king salmon in late May a gift worth $500 he put it in a light brine, then cold-smoked it. And after it came out of the smoker?
"I sautéed it in butter," he said, grinning like a naughty child, but not looking the least bit guilty about serving up fat on fat.
Brian Wildrick, the owner and chef at Harborside Pizza in Cordova, is another East Coast guy (Long Island) who used to hate salmon.
"I was thoroughly skeptical when I came up here," he said.
Though he'd worked in the restaurant business since he was 14, it wasn't the food business that brought him to Cordova it was a friend who needed help building a cabin.
One day the friend brought him some canned Copper River salmon and Wildrick was stunned. "It was delicious!"
Like Storm, he fell in love with the salmon and the town and decided to stick around, ultimately opening a pizza place with an Italian wood-fired oven, temporarily housed in a 24-foot trailer, doing take-out and delivery only.
Harborside Pizza, which caters to locals, offers all the standard toppings, but Wildrick also makes a couple of wicked salmon pizzas. One is topped with roasted salmon, crispy smoked bacon, roasted garlic and caramelized onions; but his emerging favorite features smoked salmon and pickled red onions.
Mikal Berry's eatery in Cordova the Fishwives food truck caters to locals and offers plenty of not-salmon on the menu. But she does have one salmon dish locals rave about: a salmon chowder with a Southeast Asian flair, using ingredients such as coconut milk, galangal and cayenne pepper.
Berry, who has fished commercially with her husband, has made that chowder so often that she really doesn't like it anymore. "But everyone wants to keep the chowder on the menu," she said, so it remains part of the rotation.
Her favorite way to prepare and eat salmon at home is simple: "I like it on the barbecue, with salt and pepper and a little olive oil."