Young chefs in Astoria High School's pilot culinary arts class are learning there's a lot more to seafood than what gets served on a plate.
The decision of how to season and prepare a bias-cut fillet of wild-caught salmon is really just the last step - and one of the easier ones - in a long and hotly debated chain of events that delivers fish to the kitchen.
"We learn how they catch them, the different kinds of boats and the bycatch ... about the fishermen and the controversy," said sophomore Matt Ramsey. "We watched boats bringing fish into the processing plant."
In addition to learning knife skills, food-handling techniques and seafood recipes, six students in a pilot program taught by Duncan Law Seafood Consumer Center Chef Eric Jenkins have also taken field trips to net pens in Youngs Bay, oyster beds at the Goose Point Oyster facility in Bay Center, Wash., and the Bornstein and Pacific Coast fish processing facilities in Astoria and Warrenton.
The class includes hands-on kitchen experience shucking oysters, cooking clams, filleting rockfish and salmon, backing and cleaning Dungeness crab and loining Albacore tuna.
But it also gives students background knowledge of how to identify an array of fish species and the importance of bycatch reduction devices in sustaining fish populations. The class has heard presentations from Seafood Center Director Diane Moody on seafood sustainability, Oregon Sea Grant extension agent Steve Theberge on fishing gear types and Clatsop Economic Development Council's Fisheries Director Tod Jones on the county's salmon rearing program.
"We want students to know where local fish comes from, how it's treated and how to cook it - from the ocean to the plate," said Jenkins. "We want them to have an idea of what happens to it when it comes off the boat. ... I'm trying to give them as much exposure to the industry as I can in the short time I have them."
A new ideaAstoria High School Principal Larry Lockett said the seed for the class was planted when he attended a dinner function at the Seafood Center and "saw what a great job Eric (Jenkins) was doing."
"I just thought this is a natural for our kids," said Lockett. He met with Jenkins and sought out interest from students at Astoria High. Jenkins agreed to donate his time to the class, while the school foots the bill for ingredients and activities.
So far the class has been "a tremendous success," said Lockett. "The kids are getting excited about cooking and exploring culinary arts as a career."
The students are also learning about the restaurant industry and its overlaps with the fishing industry, said Jenkins, who arranged to have each student observe a night behind the scenes in a local seafood restaurant's kitchen.
Jenkins has assigned each student to develop a recipe for a specific finfish or shellfish by the end of the class, when together they'll serve a six-course meal to their family and friends. Ramsey's specialty is salmon, and for his final project he is perfecting a salmon roulade with provolone, prosciutto, fresh basil and roasted red bell pepper sauce to be served at a graduation ceremony June 13.
Ramsey said he now has a little more on his mind before he starts slicing and dicing - such as whether the salmon is wild-caught or farmed, and what method of fishing was used.
Tour gives firsthand lookWhen junior Oscar Carriere prepares rockfish chowder for his final project, he will have an intimate knowledge of that industry the produces his central ingredient. During a tour of Pacific Coast Seafoods last week, plant supervisor Jerry Boisvert told students about 15 different species of commercially-caught rockfish and how they are processed at the Warrenton plant. Trawlers have quotas for each kind of fish, Boisvert said, and once they reach the quota "they're supposed to stop fishing."
The fisheries aren't what they once were, Boisvert told the group. His plant used to stay busy with only 10 boats fishing, but now it takes 40 boats to catch enough fish to maintain operations.
Fishermen like Blair Miner, who captains the Columbia Star trawl vessel, have to be highly adaptive to make a living in the fisheries given all the restrictions, said Boisvert. As Miner unloaded his catch of black cod and sole at the dock, Minor told students: "Stay in school, kids."
"Fishermen are the last hunter-gatherers for food," Jenkins told the students during the tour. "And there aren't many left."
Inside the plant, workers separated groundfish by species and swiftly sliced fillets with paring knives. High recovery rates at a fast pace can produce wages between $18 and $20 per hour, said Boisvert. "The more you cut, and the better you cut, the more you make."
The labor involved in processing groundfish can drive the price of fish up from a $1 per pound paid to fishermen to $7 per pound charged by the processor. Demand for the wild-caught fish plays a big part in pricing, he said.
"The fish we buy and the price we pay are based on our ability to put fresh seafood into the market," said Boisvert.
Class has a waiting listJunior Chrissy Wolcott is perfecting grilled albacore tuna cakes for her final project and will have to make hundreds of them to serve as an appetizer at a class graduation gathering for family and friends at the Seafood Center next month. While learning to prepare tuna, she's also learned about longline tuna fishing and the challenge commercial fishermen face "to make sure they catch the right kind of fish."
"I've gotten more than I expected out of the class," she said. "Fishermen have to know all the rules, how to use all the different gear types and methods that will have the least bycatch."
Senior Ben Mattingly said he is getting a head-start in the class on what he hopes will be a career in the culinary arts. Next year he plans to attend the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute in Coos Bay. When Lockett asked him about starting a cooking class at the high school, he jumped at the chance.
Mattingly's focus for the semester is oysters, and he's planning a dish of oysters poached in wine and seasoned with lemon and tarragon. A highlight of the class for him was watching workers at the Goose Point Oyster facility shucking shellfish a mile a minute. He said he also learned about machines that wrap oyster products for easy marketing.
The pilot class meets three hours a week for a semester, but next year Lockett wants it to be a full-year course.
About 30 students signed up to take next year's course, but there's only room for eight in the kitchen.
"We had a high level of interest from the students - we've had to limit our numbers," he said.