Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, aka Pink Salmon, image courtesy of Gulf of Georgia Cannery

Updated. April 13th, 2012. Here’s a pretty solid endorsement of properly handled FAS salmon:

Vancouver chefs salute FAS salmon


Maybe it’s a tipping point. A few things occured to me concerning the winner we picked at last week’s Chef Meets Grape Small Plates Challenge, organised by the BC Wine Institute.

O'Doul's Vancouver chef Chris Whittaker runs one of the city's most sustainable kitchens, Welbert Choi photo

First of all, congrats to O’Doul’s executive chef Chris Whittaker for his well conceived Pinot Noir cured Pacific Provider wild Pink Salmon, warm chanterelle and bacon salad—that played so well with medium bodied Garry Oaks 2009 Pinot Noir. What’s more, it was cool to see a (certified sustainable) wine from Salt Spring (on the BC Gulf Islands) as the well matched winner (BC VQA $21.99).

I thought the wine had just the right amount of fruit, acidity and smooth tannin balance so as to complement, not overpower the dish—which can be a problem with some fish and red wine matches. And, it seems, everyone else on the judging panel agreed.

O'Douls Pinot Noir cured Pink Salmon and Chanterelles, Tim Pawsey photo

What’s also key is that it was Pink, not Sockeye or Coho, that wowed our (blind) tasting panel.

Last year it probably would have been Sockeye on the plate. Then again, maybe not. Chef Whittaker is one of Vancouver’s ‘greenest’ chefs, sourcing ingredients that are truly sustainable, whenever possible. While the 2010 Sockeye run exceeded levels not seen in a hundred years, this year’s run is back to now ‘normal’ way less than normal numbers…

Rick Burns, who owns Pacific Provider, has been working hard to raise the status of the once lowly Pink, Tim Pawsey photo

I wonder if the panel, or even the hundreds of others who tasted this dish, would have reacted any differently had they known the cured fish had been frozen. Hopefully not. But the fact is that this Pink was frozen at sea by Rick Burns, who for years has been one of a small group of independent fishers working to champion the cause of flash frozen seafood—and heightening awareness of Pink salmon in particular.

I met Rick for the first time some years ago, to interview him about why he’d converted Pacific Provider to freeze at sea everything he caught. Beforehand, I was a skeptic. After all, any frozen fish I’d ever tasted was generally out of my home freezer—a vastly different storage method than commercial freezing; and I was still haunted by long ago memories of cod sticks at boarding school.

Tojo-san likes Rick's Pinks too. This salmon won top honours at last year's Olympic showcase, Tim Pawsey photo

Nope. To my way of thinking there was no way I was ever going to eat frozen fish over so-called fresh (but actually four- or five-day old) fish sold at the market.

At the time, Rick talked me through the process.

First of all, critical to him, and increasingly important to chefs, Burns knows exactly where and when every single fish he handles was caught. The key, he explains, is to clean, bleed and freeze the fish as soon as it’s brought aboard. Anything less results in loss of texture and flavour. And the last thing you want is for fish to be sitting on deck waiting to be picked up for processing.

Hence the need for his state-of-the-art hold that can freeze a fish to the centre in just three hours. The speed is important, as it minimalizes fat migration, which is also important for flavour and tasting ‘fresh’ later.

Pacific Provider near Annacis Slough, Tim Pawsey photo

When I left, Burns gave me a filet to try. I was amazed; the fish tasted as fresh as (or fresher than) anything off the ice at Granville Island. Since then I’ve been buying a whole lot of fish from Rick, everything from seawater-glazed whole Sockeye (that, when defrosted, shimmers as if it was just caught) to small Pink salmon filets that I keep on hand for quick and healthy meals.

One challenge is to educate his new (and usually very kitchen savvy) customers how to thaw the fish: by placing it in cold water immediately before cooking—and not letting it defrost (like meat) overnight in the fridge.

Whenever I buy more fish, I joke with Rick that he’d better keep saving me some or there won’t be any left—because what he said back then has come to fruition:

“Pinks will happen when chefs become more discerning of quality and pay the price for a well handled fish.”

In other words, pink salmon—once all but shunned by the industry and usually thrown back with by-catch—has become an attractive proposition. Chefs have learned to treat the milder flavour with respect and are realizing the benefits of being able to serve such highly affordable, nutritious and sustainable seafood.

Pinks’ runs are more consistent than their Sockeye and Coho cousins, as the fish have a life cycle of two years, compared to four, and are less choosy about where they spawn. However, the vast majority of all Pinks caught still go to canning—which seems an incredible waste, especially given the demand placed on other species increasingly at risk.

Burns, meanwhile, is back at his False Creek slip, following a season in which the Pinks he caught were fewer, but larger—at least a couple of pounds bigger than the usual  average of two to three pounds. He also reports a good catch of Coho and Springs.

Four Seasons exec. chef Ned Bell with Pinks caught by Organic Ocean, Tim Pawsey photo

You’ll find Pinks (plenty of them caught by Burns) on greener menus in town, prepared by chefs such as Karen Barnaby (Fish House in Stanley Park), Ned Bell (Yew, Four Seasons), Rob Clarke (C), Hamid Salimian (Diva at the Met), and, of course by Chris Whittaker, (O’Doul’s). Check Ocean Wise for a full list of sustainable seafood restos. Or, get the app

Best way to track down sustainable seafood restos: the Ocean Wise app

A growing challenge for independents like Burns (who when he’s not busy out fishing in season is either selling, working on his boat or helping to promote BC salmon) is to distinguish his salmon from fish that’s not frozen at sea. All too often, catch that remains unsold dockside is chest-freezer frozen. Buyer beware: it’s not the same—and it tastes that way.

What’s needed now is a Canadian Frozen At Sea (FAS) certification—that identifies not only where the fish was caught but also that it was processed at sea in an approved rapid freezer…

Once again, Chef Meets Grape—the major BC VQA release tasting of the year—underscored the high calibre of BC’s food and wine scene: Congrats also to chef Jennifer Dodd (Edible Canada at the Market), 2nd place: Kasu and birch marinated Qualicum Bay scallops, crispy Sloping Hills pork belly, spiced Okanagan peach and apricot compote, well matched with the stone fruit strains of JoieFarm’s extraordinary A Noble Blend 2010 VQA; ; and to Chef James Ng (Vancouver Convention Centre Catering), 3rd place: A duo of lamb – braised lamb neck mole with popcorn lamb sweetbread, perfectly paired with just released, black fruit and mocha toned Black Hills VQA Syrah 2009.

And kudos to the BC Wine Institute for helping to drive the critical sustainable seafood agenda.