By Jenny Neyman
It seems blasphemous to consider, but even firm-fleshed, processed-fresh Kenai River salmon can be too much of a good thing when the volume of fillets in the freezer far outnumber one’s recipes for preparing it.
Salmon patties, salmon salad, baked salmon with lemon and dill or grilled salmon with garlic and seasoning salt are all good at the start of the season, but can downgrade to all right come midwinter when they’ve been regulars on the weekly dinner menu.
Phil Hilbruner knows that firsthand. When he moved to Alaska nine years ago to work as a fishing guide, first as a hired guide then starting his own guide business, Catch-A-Drift Guiding, salmon was his staple sustenance. Repetition eventually wore the shine off even dime-bright catches.
“I was kind of a broke trout bum for a handful or years. To make ends meet I ate a fair amount of salmon. I kind of got burned out on seared salmon and grilled salmon,” he said.
Though he enjoys cooking, salmon isn’t often on his menu. In recent years he’s only kept a few sockeyes and silvers to smoke or use for sushi, not thinking much beyond that about their culinary possibilities. Until last August, that is, when he attended the second annual Salmon Cook-off in Cooper Landing. The variety was impressive and the creativity inspiring. Even the familiar dishes — salmon dips, salmon cakes and the like — were prepared so expertly to make them taste like a whole new take on Southcentral’s staple fish.
The event, held as a fundraiser for the Cooper Landing Library, was such a good time that he decided to attend again this year. Until his friend Lynda Nugent, who spearheads the event, talked him into competing in this year’s cook-off, held Aug. 9.
Nugent manages the Princess RV Park and General Store, and the first cook-off came about as just a fun thing to do around the RV park and a way to use up some of the sea of salmon Cooper Landing was swimming in that year.
“We started it that first year because there were so many fish. It was like, ‘Well, what can we do here to have some fun?’” Nugent said. “It grew to, ‘Oh, let’s do something better with this.”
The next summer the library was having trouble with its Internet service, so Nugent figured that would be a good cause for which to raise money. It was held at the Community Club (to which the library is attached). The first year 20 competing chefs served 100 people. The second year 15 chefs served 200 people and this year they capped the number at 225. Even with limited tickets, they still have to set up a tent from ConocoPhillips outside, as the center can only hold 80.
Special guest judges are brought in from out of town to determine the winning dish, and ticket holders get to vote for a people’s choice award, as well. Jerry James, owner of Wildman Jerry’s convenience store, donates baked beans, and Nugent makes and donates coleslaw. This year the Blackwater Railroad Company band came from Seward to entertain the crowd, and several businesses, locally and as far away as Moose’s Tooth in Anchorage and the Salty Dawg in Homer, donated items for door prizes.
The chefs purchase the food and supplies needed for their dishes. Some longtime Cooper Landing ladies enter, and there’s been a mother and son competing against each other, but most of the entrants are fishing guides in the area.
“It’s a real big competition amongst the guides. Last year’s winner, Brian Fuller, was back this year so they were all out to beat Brian. But it’s really a fun affair, real laid back and just fun for everybody,” Nugent said.
For Hilbruner, participating would mean missing a day’s work on the river and a not insubstantial outlay of money for groceries, but also raising money for a good cause in the community he’s called home for the past nine summers.
“It was a lot of fun, and I like to give back when I can,” he said.
But what to make? He’d tired of all his usual recipes — lemon and seasonings baked in aluminum foil, or ginger-soy seared salmon with crispy skin on the grill. That left the one preparation he liked most, even though it was a risk in a salmon cook-off, as it doesn’t involve any actual cooking.
“I kind of decided, if I was going to cook salmon, I was going to cook it the way I eat it, so that’s sushi,” he said.
To shoo the public health elephant out of the room, Hilbruner acknowledges there is debate about whether in-river salmon is appropriate for sushi, with the risk of parasites. He’s taken Japanese clients fishing who would never dream of using any salmon for sushi but those caught in salt water. But he only uses salmon he’s caught in the river — albeit the best-quality specimens he lands — and has never had a problem.
“If I’m going to make sushi with it, it has to be really bright fish. I don’t want something that’s been in the river very long,” he said. “All my salmon comes from the river. As long as it’s a nice, bright fish and you care for it well it makes some good sushi.”
The key, for anyone concerned, is to freeze it before consuming it, Hilbruner said. He always does that if he’s going to serve it to anyone else. In this case, he needed enough salmon for the sold-out, 225-strong crowd of diners attending the cook-off.
It took a couple of evenings of prep work to catch, clean, freeze, thaw and prepare — skin and remove the pin bones — the fish, as well as slice up the vegetables he planned to use.
“I used to do my sushi fairly simply, but I was taught a few tricks from a friend of mine who is a sushi chef in Alyeska. He helped me up my game with some sauces,” Hilbruner said.
He prepared inside-out rolls crusted in sesame seeds, with avocado, cucumber and home-pickled peppers inside, and the outside topped with paper-thin slices of cucumber and home-picked onion, sprinkled with candied ginger and served with a ponzu (citrus soy) sauce and creamy wasabi sauce. Sushi is a precision dish, and he even saw to the details — spending all day making the rolls, bringing a mini refrigerator to keep them cool, borrowing fancy serving plates for the judges from the Kingfisher restaurant, and chilling the plates, too.
“Anytime I’m preparing something for a crowd like that I get a little nervous about it. That was by far the largest crowd I’ve ever served,” he said. “It was kind of a scramble when they opened the door to cut up the rolls and garnish them.”
He went into the event feeling confident with his sushi, but not knowing how his dish would stack up against the others.
“When I showed up and looked at everything, that made me think, ‘Wow, this is going to be some stiff competition,’” he said. “There were some other dishes that I thought had a good chance. My favorite that other people made was a salmon cheesecake, which sounds odd, but I’ll try anything once. It actually was delicious. My hat was off to them for trying something different.”
The judges sampled first, then the crowd. After all the fish had found its way to bellies — one fan making seven trips back to Hilbruner’s station, it was time to announce the awards.
The judges chose Hilbruner’s sushi as the top dish, for which he received a trophy of a skillet with a stuffed sockeye in it, and $200 cash, which he donated back to the library. Attendees also vote for their favorite dish of the night, placing a ticket in the jar at their favorite chef’s station. To Hilbruner’s pleasant surprise, he won the people’s choice award as well – a $25 gift certificate to Sackett’s and half an old hip boot with a salmon preparing food painted on it.
“That’s the award I really wanted to win. That’s the locals who vote on that,” he said.
After his taste of success, Hilbruner might just be hooked on the salmon cook-off. He said he’s planning on entering again next year.
“But I’m a little bit nervous for next year. I kind of broke out all my big guns this year. But I’ve got 12 months to ponder it,” he said.
Nugent isn’t surprised to have reeled in another repeat Cooper Landing Salmon Cook-Off participant.
“We have people that come that were here for the first one — several families that come every summer to fish and they plan their vacation around the salmon cook-off,” she said. “It means we’re doing something right.”