Cooking With Local Chefs

Cooking with Chef Erik Walker | Mount Cook salmon - a fish worth the effort

Perhaps it would be more fitting to call it Mount Cook alpine king salmon, but that is a mouthful. It is, after all, king salmon (also known as Chinook), from the highest mountains in New Zealand. At 12,218 feet, the three summits of Mount Cook lay in the Southern Alps, carved out by the Tasman and Hooker Glaciers. A popular tourist destination, Mount Cook, known as Aoraki to the locals (named after a young boy with three brothers), was said to have been created and turned to stone after their canoe tilted and was frozen by the south wind on their voyage around the Earth Mother, Papatuanuku. These mountains provide fast flowing glacial waters that create a perfect habitat for the world's finest freshwater king salmon.

I was brought on board at the Chiles Restaurant Group in October as a research and development chef. I am a Florida native, born and raised just north of Tampa. Spending most of my time in Los Angeles, while outside of Florida, I experienced most of what I consider has shaped my palate and taught me about cuisine. I was bombarded with ethnic, niche, or high-end restaurants and dishes while working in the kitchens of various restaurants in California and abroad. These experiences led me to understand the difference between good products, mediocre product, bad products, and products that you want nothing to do with.

Since working with the Chiles Group, I have been communicating directly with the farmers, fishermen, wine makers and aquaculturists that provide our restaurants with produce and seafood. This experience is something that most chefs can only dream about. Working with these ingredients has opened my eyes

to what amazing food products are available locally. This is a wonderful change from what I remember growing up.

Between Gamble Creek Farm's fresh produce, Keith Mann's wild boar, Mote Marine's Siberian caviar and sturgeon, Anna Maria Fish Company's bottarga, Curt Hemmel's aquaculture in Terra Ceia, O'Brien Family Farm strawberries, King Family Farm peaches and blueberries, Dusty Chaney's softshell crabs and various other products from local farms and purveyors, I have found that our area is not only capable of providing some of the best products in the country, it excels at it. Further, the variety and quality of the seafood is some of the most extensive and finest I have come across.

Mount Cook salmon is no different. It is a superior product, of exceptional taste and texture. But that is not the only thing that makes this product stand out. Swimming in some of the purest waters, this king salmon is farm raised from the glacial waters of Mount Cook National Park. Constantly flowing and never pooling, the water eventually ends its journey spilling into the Pacific Ocean. No pesticides or heavy metals are ever introduced. Sourced from the wild, Mount Cook alpine salmon densities are kept at lower than best practice for farmed salmon, resulting in the ability to never use antibiotics or chemicals to sustain the health of the fish.

At the Mackenzie Basin, where the farm resides at 2,000 feet above sea level, even Seafood Watch from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., has taken note. They have rated Mount Cook alpine salmon as "Green," signifying "Best Choice" with a score of 8.59 out of 10. This is the highest scoring salmon farm in the Seafood Watch rating system. Stated more clearly, this is the cleanest and most ecologically friendly farm raised salmon in the world.

You might wonder why a company so proud to bring its customers the best local ingredients from your neighboring farmers and small businesses would be so adamant about bringing you salmon from New Zealand. Although salmon is not local to the Southeast, it is extremely popular on restaurant menus nationwide. So how can a restaurant in Florida give its customers a fish that they love, without brutalizing the environment? Turns out, it's not always about what's hyper-local that makes sense. The Chiles Group is also concerned about its impact on the global environment, and the opportunity to source from a company with such high standards, and accolades simply could not be passed up.

Believe me, I had the same questions until I was able to work with the product for the first time. In addition to the environmental benefits, the fish is exceptionally delicate, allowing you to cut through its succulent flesh with only a fork. When cooked properly (on the rare side of medium rare), it is buttery and tender, almost melting in your mouth. Our chefs enjoy working with such a beautiful fish. That's why, in addition to serving a crispy skin salmon, they have challenged themselves by house curing and house smoking some of this salmon.

Will Manson, head chef at the Beach House, is serving a Salmon Belly Bacon BLT on marbled rye with lettuce, tomato and bacon jam. The cold-smoked fillet is especially impressive as it demonstrates that wonderful cured texture that is so familiar to those who eat lox and bagels for breakfast. Ours is served with the coveted Mote Marine caviar.

As the R&D chef for the Chiles Group, I am honored to be working with such high-quality ingredients. The same goes for the chefs with whom I work closely. Ian Fairweather, Will Manson, and George Quattromani all have their own unique take on how to serve this prized salmon. Mar Vista is doing a Salmon Pastrami that is to die for -- cured for two days, then rubbed with a molasses and herb mixture that would make your grandmother proud.

The Beach House is featuring it on a dish called Tots & Pearls; trust me you don't want to miss this dish. The Sandbar's version of the cured and smoked salmon, being more of a classic presentation, has a huge appeal for those looking to enter the wonderful world of salmon. It truly is a fish worth the effort.

Crispy Skin Salmon

6 ounce salmon fillet


White pepper

Heat a heavy bottom skillet and add a small amount of vegetable oil (about a table spoon). Heat until the oil shimmers. Season the Salmon with salt and pepper to taste. Place the salmon in the skillet skin side down, and gently press the flesh with your fingers occasionally. When you feel the fillet stop "bubbling" in the pan, it's time to flip it. After you flip the fillet, turn the heat down just a bit and cook until the desired doneness is reached. For medium rare, it should still be bright orange in the center and slightly warm, and opaque on the outsides. Serve immediately with your favorite sides (great with roasted potatoes and vegetables).

Erik Walker, is R&D chef of the Chiles Restaurant Group.