Know your fisherman
Pictured with her son, Alec.
Fran Kaul’s career in the Alaska fishing industry has come full circle. The owner of Misty Fjord Seafood now sells her high-quality flash-frozen Bristol Bay sockeye fillets to home cooks, upscale restaurants, and health food stores around the country. Ironically, Kaul got hooked into the career by simply learning how to cook!
As a teenager from Minnesota, Kaul visited her older brother in Alaska and went out on a friend’s commercial fishing boat. Kaul recalls, “I fell in love with it. I was hooked. I knew immediately I wanted to someday run my own boat. It shaped my life.” While in college in the early 1980s, Kaul thought she wanted to fish commercially in Alaska, but she knew she couldn’t take the traditional route into the industry. She needed a special skill and reasoned that by learning to cook she could land a job in a galley kitchen during the summer. She taught herself to cook by experimenting at home, reading books, and nannying for a food-loving family in Austria.
Indeed, those efforts paid off because she got her first job as a cook on a gillnetter in Southeast Alaska. She explained, “Yeah, I knew how to cook. I didn’t know how to do anything else, but I knew right away that it was something that really interested me, so I learned how to mend gear. I learned basic engine maintenance and tried to think like a fisherman, asking lots of questions and paying attention.” Kaul purchased her first boat, the Islandia, in 1988. She opted to fish in Bristol Bay because a friend tipped her off and because the gillnetter seemed like a more manageable boat for her. She had never been to Bristol Bay and purchased the turnkey operation ten days before the season opened! Kaul readily admits that it was bold move.
Kaul has been fishing for thirty years now and prides herself on the quality of her sockeye salmon and the manner in which it is handled. Kaul sells her fish to Leader Creek Fisheries and has to meet their strict standards of quality control. Each fish is handled with “kid gloves” and is immediately bled by hand on board her boat and placed floating in chilled water. The holding tank on her custom-built boat, the Janet Elaine has computers that monitor the temperature of the water and ensure quality. This year she hopes to upgrade from padded mats to trampolines on the deck so the sockeye don’t get bruised when they come on board.
After Kaul sells her sockeye to Leader Creek, the fish is gutted, filleted, flash frozen, glazed, and then sold back to Kaul who sells the vacuum-packed fish directly to her customers throughout the country. She explained, “It’s been really cool to see how many people have learned about the differences in salmon… For me, it’s about more than just making a living. I have to feel good about what I’m doing.”
Kaul recently met with Liam Spence, the Executive Chef at Lola in Seattle. Her direct marketing approach paid off because Lola is now serving her sockeye. Spence explains, “It’s a frozen product that eats more like a fresh piece of salmon. It’s delicious. I’m using it on my Seattle Restaurant Week menu in April. It’s great in the offseason and I’m not going to use anything else but this.” Spence prepares the salmon by pan searing it with the skin on. The medium rare salmon has a nice crispy skin and is served with an herbed caper relish, almonds, and lemons. Spence says, “The people love it. They are really into it.”