It was 7 a.m. on a recent Thursday morning when Marc Lupino, chief executive chef at the Valley’s Ocean 44, found himself on a small private company jet headed from Phoenix to Cordova, Alaska.
The plan seemed relatively straightforward: Land in Alaska after a quick stop in Seattle to pick up an executive from Pacific Seafood, the company which owned the jet and which had set up this opportunity, fish for a few hours, pack the catch, then board the plane and head back to Scottsdale to prepare and serve the fresh-caught fish for that night’s dinner.
Only, the trip didn’t go exactly as planned.
First Fish is a big deal in Cordova, a tiny town with one hotel, one restaurant, one bar and no roads in or out. The famous adjacent Copper River, known for its highly prized wild salmon, is open for only a brief fishing season—often just 12 weeks long, with two days a week allowed for fishing. The fishing days are controlled by environmentalists, who only allow fishing if enough fish have gone up the river.
Thus, First Fish—the first day of fishing for the season—is a highly anticipated event. And, this was an extremely special opportunity for Marc.
But when he landed in Alaska, there was bad news: The boat they were going out on was no longer available—nor were any other boats.
So Marc settled himself into the only bar in town and mulled his next steps.
“That’s when this little Vietnamese man sat down next to me,” he says.
The man owned a commercial boat, and so Marc offered him a deal. He’d pay him money to be on the boat, he’d work all day, and he’d pay for his fish, too.
It was a deal.
At 2:30 a.m. the next morning, Marc went to the dock.
“[The man] looked at me like, ‘You showed up? I can’t believe it!’” he says.
But Marc, who had no experience, was ready.
“We went out at 3 in the morning, and we didn’t come back until about 11 or midnight,” he says. “It was crazy and one of the most interesting things I had ever gotten myself to do. I just knew I wanted that fish!”
That day, Marc became a commercial fisherman, working all day, and yes, catching his prized fish.
“I was able to bring back two king salmons since I had a 60-pound weight limit for the plane. Each fish was about 25 pounds, plus the ice.
“I’m glad it worked out the way it did because it was a huge challenge for me personally. It was very interesting to see how [commercial fishing] really works. It was real.”
And by the end of the day, Marc and the man were friends.
When they returned to land, Marc then watched the fish be packed at the small packing facility there, boarded a 7 a.m. flight out of Cordova, made two stops, and then finally landed at 3:50 p.m. that Friday in Scottsdale.
“I brought the fish over to the restaurant, butchered it, and that was our feature for the day,” he says.
He prepared the fish simply.
“I put some house fish seasoning on it, seared it on a flattop, put a little wine and butter in the pan with it, cooked it in the oven, and plated it with grilled lemon. The fish just really stood out on its own.”
In all, there were 52 10-ounce portions available.
“Ocean 44 takes the freshness of its seafood very seriously,” he says.
Indeed it does.