Chinook Winds goes wild

Resort become the first in Oregon to exclusively serve tribal-caught wild salmon

By Patrick Alexander

Oregon Coast TODAY

When you serve enough salmon each year to keep every grizzly bear in Alaska fat and happy all summer long, any decision about where that salmon comes from is automatically a big deal.

So when Jack Strong, executive chef at Chinook Winds Casino Resort, heard about a way that he could switch from farmed to wild-caught salmon while also supporting Native American fishermen, he started crunching the numbers.

Between its three restaurants and its ever-popular buffet, the resort goes through more than 12 and a half tons of salmon each year — meaning a difference in price of just a quarter per pound quickly adds up to serious money.

Strong wanted to find a way that the resort could buy its salmon through a group called Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI), which works with tribal fishermen on the Nisqually River in Washington.

The group guarantees the fishermen a fair price for their catch, then processes the fish and distributes it to tribal casinos throughout the Northwest.

Strong said he heard about the ATNI initiative from Siletz Tribal Council member Tina Retasket while taking part in a cooking contest at the Wild Horse Casino in Pendleton during the 2012 Kitchen Rez Tour that is held at a different Oregon casino each year.

He said the idea fit with his desire to add Native American flair to the food on offer at Chinook Winds as well as fitting with the Tribal Council’s desire to have more visible references to Indian heritage throughout the resort.

“There’s a lot of talk about buying Native,” he said, “putting money back into Indian Country, economically supporting Tribal entities that are trying to represent what they have been doing for generations.”

The resort was already buying from Indian Country, getting its salmon from a tribally operated fish farm in British Columbia.

But Strong felt the health and environmental benefits of the wild-caught salmon on offer from ATNI made it a superior product. And that was before the blind taste test, in which all the resort’s chefs sampled ATNI’s salmon alongside the farmed product.

“Every single chef chose the wild-caught,” Strong said.

When making the switch to wild salmon, Strong started “small,” bringing the product in to the resort’s restaurants — Chinook’s Seafood Grill and the Rogue River Steakhouse — in April. Together, the two restaurants use between 5,000 and 6,000 pounds of salmon a year.

At Chinook’s Seafood Grill, patrons can sample the new salmon in a herb-crusted summer Chinook on a vegetable-studded red Inca quinoa, topped with dungeness crab and a rich corn sauce.

Meanwhile, the Rogue River Steakhouse offers several salmon dishes, including salmon seared in herbs, topped with sautéed prawns and served with chive-lemon dumplings, citrus butter sauce, Brussels sprouts and mushrooms.

Once the restaurants were taken care of came the real challenge — the casino’s Siletz Bay Buffet, where guests go through about 20,000 pounds of salmon each year. Each fillet is oven fired on a cedar plank to impart some of the cedar flavor into the fish and represent a traditional Native cooking method for salmon.

With the buffet salmon on display, color became a larger factor. Strong said many people are used to the almost neon red color of farmed salmon — a color achieved by adding dye to the fishes’ feed.

In order to keep the vibrant color that grabs the eyes of buffet patrons, Strong agreed to pay ATNI a little more to get Keta, a deep, dark red variety of salmon similar to Sockeye when caught fresh from the ocean.

When the buffet made the switch in late May, Chinook winds became the first resort in Oregon to offer tribal wild-caught salmon in all its food outlets.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Strong said. “You are helping tribal communities. You are telling a story through food.”

In order to share that story more fully with guests, the resort plans to install screens at the buffet that will alternate between the menu and video clips giving details of the ATNI initiative.

For Strong, a member of the Siletz Tribe as well as a career chef, Salmon is far more than just another ingredient.

“It kind of means life,” he said. “It sustains us.”

“Salmon was here before us,” he added. “Hopefully, as long as we don’t mess it up, it will be here after us.”

And Strong aims to highlight the symbolic status of the salmon in all his preparations, from the simple, cedar plank approach used in the buffet or something more adventurous at the seafood grill.

Salmon is also never far from his mind when cooking up one-off recipes for special events, such as the smoked salmon lollipops he made for a recent cooking demonstration in Siletz — with the fish dipped in a Dijon mustard and agave nectar glaze before being rolled in amaranth to give it a little crunch.

Salmon is also topping Strong’s list of possibilities for a special treat to entertain guests at an upcoming party for the Bering Sea crab event which will be held at the casino in August.

Chinook’s Seafood Grill is located inside the Chinook Winds hotel building at 1501 NW 40th Place, Lincoln City, while the Rogue River Steakhouse and Siletz Bay Buffet are on the second floor of the casino at 1777 NW. 44th Street. Aces Bar and Grill is located at Chinook Winds Golf Resort, 3245 NE 50th Street. For opening hours, go to www.chinookwindscasino.com.

 

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