Ocean 44 Chief Executive Chef Marc Lupino traded in his pristine white chef’s jacket and pleated hat for a black-and-grey North Face zip-up hoodie and an Ocean 44-branded baseball cap to catch fresh fish from a river in Alaska.
And he did it all for his patrons.
From May 15 through 17, Lupino hopped on a private jet to Cordova, Alaska, to take part in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fish the Copper River for king salmon before the river opened up for the season to commercial fisherman.
In the end, Lupino caught about 60 pounds of sockeye salmon and king salmon and served 52 dishes featuring said fresh fish to Ocean 44 diners May 17.
Getting his hands on the salmon and returning back to the southern Scottsdale restaurant was a wild ride.
“I hadn’t slept in almost two days at that point,” Lupino said. “[It] ended up being a crazy experience, and I was able to bring some incredible fish to Phoenix for our guests to eat.”
The original plan — offered by his Pacific Seafood purveyor — was to fish Thursday into Friday morning, then fly back Friday and immediately begin preparing the fish that night for guests at Ocean 44.
When he arrived to the small, relatively inaccessible fishing community, the man who was to take Lupino out on the river fell, broke his jaw and was airlifted to Seattle.
“I got stuck,” Lupino recalled. “I was at a point where I’m already in Alaska; I’ve already made a point that I want to bring this fish back. I already told the owners, and the restaurant was really ready for it. We were looking forward to doing something super interesting and different.”
He headed to a local, “seedy” bar and chatted with a Vietnamese gentleman, who was seated next to him.
“‘Why are you here?’ is basically is what he said to me,” Lupino said. “There are no tourists in the whole town. No one can get in or out. There’s no reason to be there unless you’re fishing or you live there.”
Lupino explained to the gentleman his snafu and how he was there for first fish.
“He kind of looked at me weird, and I go, ‘But I don’t have a boat to go out on. Can I go with you?’”
“You want to go with me?” the gentleman responded. “You’re going to pay me $100 and you’re going to work.”
Lupino agreed and met the gentleman at the dock at 3 a.m. the next day.
“I don’t think he expected me to be there, [but] I was suited up ready to go,” he said, adding that this was his first time on a fishing boat.
At 7 a.m., the fisherman threw his first net down, backed out, and they both waited.
“About 45 minutes [later], he reels it in, and he’s yelling at me, he’s screaming at me, ‘Get the fish! Get the fish! Get the fish!’ And I’m the new guy, like, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing!’” Lupino recalled with a laugh.
Amongst hundreds of other boats on the river, the two fished on a 28-foot boat until almost 10 p.m.
“I don’t know why he brought me on the boat. Maybe it was just for entertainment value,” Lupino said. “But it turned out that guy was a really cool guy. We probably caught 40 to 50 fish, which is a lot on opening day.”
Lupino purchased fresh salmon from the gentleman and brought the 60 pounds of salmon onto the private jet.
Once he landed in Phoenix, he drove straight to Ocean 44 — running on zero sleep over the past two days — and, within 24 hours of catching the fish, he had it on patrons’ plates.
“I butchered it in the front window and went and visited the tables that ate it to see how they liked it,” Lupino said. “It was a pretty cool thing.”
The fresh salmon served at Ocean 44 — which specializes in premium steaks and fresh, a la carte seafood — was braised in spring water, butter and lemon.
“Everybody loved it. I had people coming back [to the kitchen], wanting to talk to me, asking me how I got it. They’d never seen salmon like that before. It was so red, and it was so moist. It was just delicious,” Lupino said.
Considering how hectic the trip was, Lupino said he’d do it all over again.
“I wanted fish fresh out of the water for our restaurant. There’s nothing better than saying, ‘The chef went and caught the fish.’ Well, I actually went and caught the fish and brought it back and carried it into the restaurant,” he said.
In fact, Lupino was invited by the gentleman to return to Cordova for the first day of the season.
“And I think I’m going to do it. It’s something that would be a cool tradition,” Lupino said, adding that everybody in the restaurant loved it.
“It was something new for me. It was something interesting for the hundreds of cooks and chefs that work for me, knowing that I go that far for our products. Because with an a la carte business, everything has to speak for itself,” he said.
Future Ocean 44 guests can expect to enjoy more of the salmon, as it will be on the menu in the coming weeks — as well as other small changes to the menu throughout the summer.
“You’ll see some different fish features as the seasons change. You’ll start to get some of the fish that are in the northern part of New England,” he said.
Lupino said the whirlwind trip gave him a newfound appreciation for fisherman.
“You can order fish and have it sent to you all day long, but when you see what these people go through on the boats to actually get it and earn a living, it gives you a different perspective on what you want to do with your fish and the relationships you want to build. It’s interesting to bridge that gap,” he said.