Herring's Slow Moment
How these “bony sons of bitches” are winning over new fans with the help of a chef and a local visionary.
March 20, 2017 ● 7 min read
Renee Erickson spent five frigid days late one March aboard a fishing tender in the waters of Sitka Harbor, passing every waking hour in anticipation of a modestly sized oily fish, one whose flesh is often dismissed — even by people who catch it — as nothing more than bait.
Erickson flew from Seattle to Alaska with Eli Dahlin, at the time chef de cuisine at her restaurant, Walrus and the Carpenter. They came hoping to witness a scene that sounds like one-part pioneer-era land rush, one-part demolition derby. A score of fishing vessels and their tenders congregated in the harbor, as they do each spring. Overhead helicopters whirred and eagles circled, both parties surveying the schools of fish.
Most of the boats that gather in port are resolutely rustic — “real gnarly accommodations,” as Erickson puts it. The Seattle chef is no stranger to rustic digs; she’s spent most of her life in proximity to Washington’s Puget Sound, digging clams or walking oyster beds. On board the F/V Steelhead, however, captain Mark "Mack" Mackiewicz made sushi for Erickson and Dahlin and stocked his larder with organic eggs. When Erickson travels, she usually brings a good amount of wine, and this trip in March 2013 was no exception.
The occupants of the F/V Steelhead waited (and waited, and waited) for the moment when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game would declare the Sound’s herring population ready to fish. The seiners would get just a few hours’ notice to jockey into place out in the water, with help from spotter planes reconnoitering the silvery schools overhead, the boats all working to outhustle one another to the prime spots.
Herring is the last of Alaska’s so-called derby fisheries (the others run on a more orderly quota system), and the run kicks off Alaska’s springtime commercial fishing season. Conversations about the state of the world’s fisheries usually inspire frustration, if not outright depression—general estimates suggest more than 80 percent of global fish stocks are overexploited, or at least fished to the very brink of what’s sustainable. Pacific herring, however, are well managed and relatively abundant.
Except, next to nobody in the United States actually eats herring. All that waiting, the cutthroat haste to scoop up nets full of them is because of the roe—the fishery opens up at the moment that ADFG biologists determine those skeins of eggs are at their peak. Nearly every one of the silvery creatures harvested from these waters eventually ends up overseas. Herring roe is prized in Japan; the remaining carcass usually ends up as bait or ground up as feed for aquaculture.
There isn’t a significant market for these fish in American restaurants; the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch doesn’t even track Alaska’s herring on its influential accounting of responsible seafood choices. Erickson, however, has championed herring on her menus for nearly seven years. “As an alternative, especially to tuna, it’s pretty exciting,” says the chef, who won a James Beard Award in 2016. But for humans to eat only the roe, “it felt like a lot of fish was being wasted.”
Erickson and Dahlin came to Alaska to learn more about herring’s origins. It’s a story that began with a fish-toting cold call from a guy named Warner Lew, a self-described “herring heretic” who flew Erickson and her chef up here to Alaska. In 2014, he and Erickson joined forces to sell smoked, canned herring, a project that earned a Good Food Award earlier this year. It’s easy to see why—this stuff is so tasty, it might just be the key to spreading herring appreciation throughout the land.
Despite its relative proximity to Alaska’s fisheries, its formidable reputation as a food town, and strong ties to the herring-loving cultures of Scandinavia and Japan, nary a restaurant in Seattle served fresh herring in December 2010. That’s when Lew—a mustachioed guy with a shaved head, black-framed glasses, and a sense of humor that comes out in his expansive conversations about fish—wandered into an oyster bar in Ballard for an impromptu dinner.
Erickson, a chef already beloved for her original restaurant, Boat Street Cafe, had opened the Walrus and the Carpenter earlier that year, a whitewashed pocket in the heart of Seattle’s maritime district, occupying the back of a century-old brick building that previously housed a marine supply business. Lew is the Bristol Bay fleet manager for Icicle Seafoods, which ships seafood all over the world, and usually deals with its product in scales of truckloads, not individual restaurants. Salmon is the primary focus of Lew’s day job, but over the years, he developed a certain zeal for the humble herring.
“We could be eating this fish instead,” he says. Market prices for the fish have dropped in recent years—through a combination of factors like Japan’s struggling economy and its changing eating habits. Fisheries like Sitka, where Erickson visited, stay busy but it’s been hard for the small fleet of seiners up in the Togiak, the western part of Bristol Bay, to get enough work. The herring up in this (more) remote corner of Alaska also happen to be the biggest on the West Coast... if only he could create a demand for it among restaurant circles. “Everyone loves pickled herring, but aside from that, it’s crab bait; that’s the stigma in Alaska.”
Over the years, Lew met with a few chefs around Seattle to try to drum up interest, maybe create a new market for Togiak herring, but hadn’t got far. Sitting down at Walrus and the Carpenter, however, he noticed this new oyster bar served canned sardines on toast. This meant someone in the kitchen was open to the ocean’s less-glamorous harvests.
Lew came back for another dinner two nights later. The following week he showed up once again at the restaurant, this time carrying three frozen herring in a Ziploc bag. He encouraged Erickson’s chef de cuisine, Eli Dahlin, to try them.
“I had never seen a herring outside a Monty Python sketch,” Dahlin remembers. At first, he tried to treat it like a mackerel by making a paillard, but it was “too fussy” for the fish. Ultimately, he decided to simply grill it, a treatment that highlighted the silvery skin and let people pull the skeleton out by the head, solving the most persistent problem for anyone working with fresh herring: All those bones.
Lew returned with a lug of them. Because the fish was so inexpensive, a whole grilled mackerel could run on the menu for $12.
Back then, the only herring readily available in Seattle was the frozen stuff from Europe—too far removed from the Northwest to suit Erickson’s proclivities. Soon Dahlin and Erickson found other ways to serve herring—cured, deep fried, or fashioned into rillettes. “I think people have an idea of what it is versus what it really tastes like,” says Erickson. In that way, it’s not unlike people’s relationship with oysters. “Until they have one, they think it’s slimy and gross.”
The Walrus and the Carpenter was also on its way to becoming a nationally celebrated place to eat; that grilled herring got a shout-out when Bon Appetit listed Walrus among the nation’s best new restaurants in 2011. When Erickson opened her next restaurant, The Whale Wins, chef de cuisine Marie Rutherford took to serving herring croquettes on toast; the kitchen makes a sort of smoked herring brandade and uses it in chowder. Soon after, Erickson released a cookbook called A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus. Her recipe for herring butter toasts appears on page 68, advising the reader to think of it as rillettes made with rich, smoked fish instead of pork. Turn the page, and there’s an arty portrait of Lew in waders, with his lug of herring. The recipe calls for spreading it on toasts with pickled shallots, but it’s equally good smeared on a Triscuit over your sink—or directly from the mixer bowl.
Erickson’s cooks often use the butter recipe at events, figuring it’s better, as she puts it, “for people to be able to have a single bite of something and be like ‘yeah, that’s delicious’ rather than being all tweaked out about it.”
Lew recalls telling colleagues that a higher-end restaurant was now serving herring: “Fishermen would spit out their coffee.”
Leave it to Renee Erickson to make a can of smoked herring charming. Like everything else in the chef’s orbit, the packaging exudes nautical whimsy. Each red cardboard box bears a herring in a sailor suit and cap, pipe dangling from its protruding, fishy lips. He looks like he’s on the verge of spinning a really good yarn. A plume of pipe smoke spells out the words “Smoked Herring,” rising above him.
Seattle artist Kyler Martz (also responsible for the whale and ship murals outside The Whale Wins) did the design, but the can inside is more prosaic. Pop the top and the hearty chunks of fish gleam in oil. That part is entirely Lew. Over the years his herring advocacy has grown into a personal side business. An Alaska fisherman friend named Larry Jones taught him how to smoke herring; the process adds richness and intrigue to this oily fish. But even then, says Lew, “They’re bony sons of bitches.”
For centuries, canning (or pickling, salting, or any number of other preservation methods) made herring available far beyond its season. “The beauty of canning is, it softens the bone,” he says. But plain old canned herring, he admits, doesn’t taste that great. The combination of smoking and canning, however, solves the bone issue and holds major promise for winning over more fans.
Lew had his home certified so he can legally store cans of fish here (“It’s a source of pride and shame all at the same time,” he jokes); Erickson’s chefs found so many uses for canned herring in their kitchens, that the chef and her business partner, Jeremy Price, asked if they could package six-ounce pop-tops to sell in their restaurants and online. Lew also sells his herring under his own label, Deckhand’s Daughter, in a few markets, but having a culinarily prominent name like Erickson helps draw public attention to all this little fish can do.
Erickson’s hideaway oyster bar turned out to be a platform of sorts, a place where she could coax customers to try something new. Maybe a raw oyster. Maybe those grilled sardines — or for many, a first taste of herring. In those early days, Dahlin remembers, Walrus and the Carpenter’s location in the heart of Seattle’s Nordic sea-bound neighborhood helped, as did the goodwill Erickson had built up among the city’s diners. Now, at the Whale Wins in the Fremont neighborhood and the subsequent restaurants she’s opened since, in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, that platform has expanded. Interest in herring has expanded too, slowly but significantly; a handful of restaurants now participate in an annual “Seattle Herring Week” dedicated to dishes that spread awareness.
Now, the red boxes sit on display at Walrus and the Carpenter and The Whale Wins, surrounded by bottles of wine and Erickson’s line of Boat Street Pickles, and other things she loves—a subtle but visible testament to how a chef’s talents and sourcing ethos can shift how we eat.