Connecting the tribal catch with local chefs and restaurants
BY JENNIFER CRAIN
Growing up, Sonny Davis spent hours aboard a small aluminum motorboat on the Humptulips River, often drenched by the rains that are typical of a fall along the central coast. He and an uncle fished the tides by headlamp (or lantern, or moonlight), surrounded by fog and silence. They waited out the fish, then tugged in a net of chum and silver salmon.
In the early morning, they reconvened with their extended family at a camp set up along a grassy, rutted strip of riverbank, where they fried up the catch and feasted near the lowland trees that mass along the water’s edge. After breakfast, they prepared any seal-bitten fish for the smoker.
Davis learned to fish for salmon about two years after the Boldt Decision, the landmark 1974 ruling that affirmed the rights of native Washington tribes to bring in up to half the state’s salmon harvest. For Davis and his family, members of the Quinault tribe, the assertion that tribes could fish at their “usual and accustomed grounds and stations” meant a return to traditional fishing spots on the salmon-rich river.
Despite his deep connection to the practice, Davis excelled more at selling than fishing. So he pursued a business degree at the University of Washington and worked a tribal desk job after he graduated. Though he was involved with his community over the next decade, earning a spot on the Tribal Council and volunteering with non-profit tribal groups, he missed the fish and being on the water.
“This is what we’re supposed to do. It’s this cycle that’s ingrained in you,” he says. “I didn’t realize how much I missed all of that.”
Davis claims not to be the best fisherman, but he has a knack for assessing the quality of salmon. In 2009, he put it to use by forming his own buying and distribution business, Native Harvest, to seek out top-notch salmon markets.
He began by selling some of the finest of the tribal catch direct to restaurants, sales that still make up the majority of his business. Today he also deals in grocery sales, retail, wholesale, and has added high-grade caviar, smoked salmon, whole pieces of canned steelhead, and other seafood such as halibut and spot prawns to his product line.
Davis buys straight off the boats three days a week and grades each fish on sight—looking for qualities such as clear eyes, red gills, and firm flesh. He knows the preferences of his chefs, including Portland luminaries Jason French of Ned Ludd and Vitaly Paley of Paley’s Place, and will often earmark a particular fish for a chef before it’s off the boat.
Seattle chefs buy up the company’s caviar, which Davis also holds to stringent standards.
“Out of 100 pounds of roe, maybe about twenty-five to thirty pounds is going to be caviar grade,” he says.
The company batches caviar by the individual fish, so flavors vary from jar to jar. Gene Maltzeff, Davis’s caviar partner, takes multiple batches to chefs when it’s time to buy, and they sample the roe together.
“It’s a lot like wine,” Davis says. “You might get hints of citrus or cedar—it depends on the weather, the time of the season, the maturity of the roe.”
Chris Weber, chef at The Herbfarm, knew he wanted to serve Native Harvest caviar the moment he tasted a sample that Maltzeff brought him a little over a year ago.
“I think I actually ran out and caught him in the parking lot,” he laughs. “It’s pretty outstanding. It’s just got this amazing nuttiness that I think is very unique. There’s a toasty flavor, almost like fresh baked bread. The texture and the oiliness of it just explodes and coats your whole palate.”
Weber says they buy caviar over multiple seasons: the roe comes from silver salmon in the fall, steelhead in the winter, and king salmon in the spring. In anticipation of their 100-Mile Dinner last year, the restaurant supplied the company with Puget Sound salt from Woodinville-based SaltWorks. Maltzeff custom cured and froze enough caviar in February so the restaurant could serve it with the summer meal. (Davis and Maltzeff were surprised to discover how well their caviar holds up to freezing.)
Davis buys fish Sunday through Tuesday, rain or shine, driving from his home in Olympia to scores of fishing spots along Washington’s coast. Davis buys only from licensed tribal fishers such as Robin Mail, one of the uncles who taught him to fish and a 30-year veteran fisher of the Humptulips River estuary.
Davis pays his fishers a good price in exchange for their expertise and impeccable fish handling. He stresses education and requires proper procedures, such as bleeding and icing the fish on site. He connects fishers with fish handling workshops, and has even brought chefs out to the river so fishers can hear firsthand the qualities they value in a salmon.
These are good business practices, but they also mesh with the sustainability policies that the tribes and the state have developed through their co-management of salmon habitats. Native Harvest fishers use sustainable practices that are upheld by an ingrained connection to the whole system.
Edward Sain, a Nez Perce tribal member and fisher of 20 years, works with Native Harvest because he sees a deep respect in the way they treat the fish. He says the company’s values—sustainable fishing, precise methodology, and careful management—are typical of the Quinault, who he calls “the first salmon tribe.”
“I’ve never seen a better stewardship than what they have going,” Sain notes. “They’re still a thousand years with the stewardship of that fish. That’s how they look at it.”
Davis sees his work as part of this larger picture, a continuation of the way the coastal tribes have fished for millennia.
“It’s just that idea of sharing food—good food. That’s what I wanted to bring into my business,” he says. “It’s that kind of culture: sharing really amazing food and having a lot of people experience it.”
Try Native Harvest caviar seasonally at The Herbfarm, Altura, and Taylor Oyster Bar on Capitol Hill. Find canned steelhead at the Olympia Farmers Market, the Olympia Food Co-ops, and Little General Food Shop. Caviar, smoked salmon, and canned steelhead available online. nativeharvest.net
Jennifer Crain is a freelance writer in Olympia, where the letterpressed labels on Native Harvest’s canned steelhead caught her eye. Find out more about her work at jennifercrain.com.