Chef Thoughts with Cesar Figueroa
Continuing our chef conversations, we talked with Chef Cesar Figueroa, the winner of our 2021 Copper River Coho Chef Competition. Aiming to get a picture of what he learned during his time in Alaska, and how it changed his perspective, we asked him a series of questions and took careful note of the answers of this culinary genius.
Do you feel you gained a deeper appreciation for or understanding of the process of bringing salmon to the world? What aspects of this process stuck out most to you?
I definitely learned a lot. Sometimes you don’t consider all the steps it takes to get a piece of steak, or a piece of fish to your table. Now that I’ve learned about it at the source I’ve seen all the moving parts, from the way you take care of it to the work put into conservation and developing the community around it. Learning about how the fish find their way home stuck out to me. Sometimes at night I just think about it; it really sticks with me.
Do you believe that this trip has shaped how you think about sourcing protein, or food in general, even beyond just salmon?
Definitely yes. I’ve already been familiar with this as a chef, but then to be able to see the operation of Copper River Salmon, it makes me want to find the best in the world. Literally Copper River Salmon is the finest in the world, and you can definitely find it if you look for it. Supporting the harvesters and the sustainability for future generations is so important.
What was the most surprising aspect of your time in Alaska?
I didn’t expect the amount of biologists there. I was expecting a fisherman town, a working town, where you go out and catch fish then bring it back and sell it. I didn’t think about the biologists putting work into tracking the history and returns, and managing when you can fish. That knowledge was very impactful to me
Three things that stuck out to me were:
1. Community & family
2. The knowledge of fishermen
3. The biologists
These three things working together was surprising to see. And landing there, I didn’t feel like an outsider. I felt like everyone cared for the land and the animals and everything, and it felt good. As a chef, seeing that lack of exploitation was great. I’m happy you guys have something so special.
Has your comfort level with serving wild salmon changed?
Definitely, I feel like I want salmon on my menu whenever it’s available. People need to be able to taste this beautiful fish, I want to be able to use everything, from the bones to the flesh. Copper River Salmon is something I want in my restaurant every year.
From what you learned, do you feel that Copper River Salmon is a truly superior product? Or is it just marketing?
After eating it raw, cooking it, aging it, and eating so many other salmons, I really think it is. As a chef I’m not worried about talking up a product to make friends, I mean what I say, and I would say that the color the flesh, the flavor, when you age it and lose moisture, the meat is beautiful and succulent. Compared to other fish, Copper River Salmon is the best in the world.
What were your impressions of the efforts put towards sustainability of this wild resource?
Another thing that stuck out to me was the net recycling, and that recycled material being turned into new things. Working to keep the environment clean is beautiful.