in the kitchen with...
Chef LaDonna Gundersen
Story by Jamey Bradbury
Photography by Ole Gundersen
LaDonna Gundersen can’t help herself. When she sees a piece of fish labeled “Wild Alaskan Salmon,” she has to ask: Really?
“It’s an ongoing thing when we go to restaurants and grocery stores – seeing salmon that’s marked ‘Wild Alaskan’ when I can tell it isn’t,” says the cookbook author and commercial fisherwoman.
The issue is dear to her heart after 27 years spent fishing in Southeast Alaska on a 32-foot aluminum boat with her husband, Ole. “We’re small business owners, like so many Alaskan commercial fishermen, and we depend on people eating wild salmon. But even more importantly, farmed salmon is bathed in chemicals that contaminate the fish and wash into the ocean.” She isn’t shy about her crusade to educate and encourage others to stick to wild-caught fish. “I’ve talked restaurant owners into taking farmed salmon off their menus.”
LaDonna wasn’t always so passionate about salmon. In fact, before she met Ole in a Seattle pizza parlor (“I was the only waitress old enough to serve him beer,” she recalls), LaDonna was a California girl who wouldn’t have known a King from a coho.
BEST TIP FOR
"Don’t overcook it. There is only one way to cook fish – quickly! Nothing is worse than overcooked fish – it is tough, dry and unappetizing. One rule to remember is that fish continues to cook after it has been removed from the heat. Measure the thickest part of the fish and plan on a cooking time of 8-10 minutes per inch of thickness. Watch the color change as the fish is cooking. Raw fish is translucent; cooked fish is opaque."
“I was used to swimming in the ocean, not making a living on it,” LaDonna explains. Still, she followed Ole to Ketchikan and when, on an initial trip on his skiff, she fell asleep on the diesel engine, LaDonna says, “Ole knew I was the one. We got married and went fishing, and we’ve never looked back.”
Today, LaDonna is her husband’s deckhand, working 18-hour days at the peak of salmon season. She’s also the galley cook, responsible for devising filling meals chocked full of flavor that can be put together in an often rocking and rolling four-by-seven-foot space. “Cooking on a fishing boat is like trying to cook on a rollercoaster. When I first started, I didn’t know how to do it. Ole was eating chili and Dinty Moore stew. We’d stock up on things we could just heat and eat; our meals weren’t great.”
When she developed an allergy to MSG, though, LaDonna realized she was going to have to start cooking from scratch in her tiny galley. “We started doing stirfrys, and I found recipes I could put together in that small space. I found out it was actually pretty easy.”
The secret, she discovered, was to select recipes with minimal ingredients, and to get organized by reading each recipe before she started cooking. Today, she finds the small size of her boat’s galley and her home kitchen is actually an advantage: “When I turn around, everything’s right there. I seriously stress out in a large kitchen.”
But the recipes she’s collected in three cookbooks work in huge and teeny kitchens, alike. Her latest book, My Tiny Alaskan Oven, features 107 recipes with short ingredient lists and uncomplicated instructions. The book also tells the story, LaDonna says, of commercial fishing in Southeast Alaska. “We gave fun facts about Southeast and its history,” she describes. In the couple’s off-season, Ole is a professional photographer; for the new cookbook he provided 250 full color photos of food and scenery. “We’re hoping it’s going to give people who visit Southeast, or even live there, some nice memories.”
LaDonna has come a long way from her California roots. The waters of Alaska and Oregon have been her laboratory as she’s experimented with ways to transform shrimp, crab, halibut – and, of course, salmon.
“We mostly eat sockeye – I use that for a lot of my recipes because it holds up really nicely. It’s very versatile,” LaDonna says, adding that the firmness of sockeye makes it suited to dishes like the strata she includes in her new cookbook.
Chum, meanwhile, smokes well and is great for casseroles and dips. Summer barbeque aficionados should look for coho, which works well on the grill – or, better yet, catch it themselves: “Sport fishermen love the cohos. They’re feisty and fun.”
And then, of course, there’s King salmon: “The king of all fish!” LaDonna enthuses. “It’s beautiful on the barbeque or roasted, so full of flavor.”
Whatever salmon the home cook chooses, My Tiny Alaskan Oven has “simple and scrumptious” recipes that will satisfy everyone from the busy mom to the hardworking boat captain. LaDonna encourages her readers to try a few recipes and see what works best for them – just as long as they remember one thing: “Friends don’t let friends eat farmed salmon!”