Sitka chef Colette Nelson to represent Alaska in Great American Seafood Cook-Off

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Ludvig’s Bistro owner and executive chef Colette Nelson garnishes rabbit thighs with beach asparagus for a special local foods dinner she prepared as a February 2015 fundraiser for The Sawmill Farm.

Next week, Sitka chef Colette Nelson will carry a special cargo in a violin case when she heads to New Orleans to represent Alaska in the Great American Seafood Cook-Off.

Nelson, the owner and executive chef of Ludvig’s Bistro, will be carrying a frozen white king salmon in her violin case, the fish she plans to cook for the annual contest. The white king salmon was caught July 4 by troller Lou Barr of Auke Bay (who Nelson used to commercial fish with) and flash-frozen earlier this month. Nelson doesn’t plan to let the fish out of her control as she travels to New Orleans.

“I’m going to hold that fish with me. I’m not going to let somebody put it under the plane because that’s our gold,” Nelson told the Juneau Empire in a July 25 article.

On Aug. 6, Nelson will compete against chefs from Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Utah. The Great American Seafood Cook-Off is sponsored by the Louisiana Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board, and focuses on domestic, sustainable seafood and local ingredients.

Nelson, who will compete with her sous chef Josh Miller, hopes to become the second straight Alaska chef to win the Best Seafood Chef title, joining Beau Schooler and Travis Hotch of The Rookery Café in Juneau who won last year with a sockeye salmon dish. Nelson was nominated for this year’s contest by Gov. Bill Walker.

Nelson hasn’t said exactly how she plans to cook her white king salmon, but did hint that it will have a Spanish theme in keeping with her restaurant’s use of Mediterranean flavors.

“For me this experience is not only about representing Alaska, but it’s about what Alaska has given to me,” Nelson told the Empire. “I came here to fish in college so that I could study abroad in Spain. I did that and had a great time fishing. I fished for three seasons, then went to Spain and fell in love with the cuisine and with Mediterranean food as a whole. So to go to this competition 25 years later — after being in both the seafood industry and the restaurant business — it feels complete to go there with Spanish ideas.”

The dish will feature a pan-seared fillet of the fish that includes the belly meat.

“For anybody that knows king salmon, the belly meat is where the best flavor is,” Nelson said. “We like it just perfectly cooked so it just starts to separate, when the flakes come off. You can feel the oil, get it on your lips and really taste it.”

Nelson opened Ludvig’s Bistro in 2002, and has been a big supporter of local foods in Sitka (including using her restaurant to host fundraisers for the Sitka Local Foods Network and developing recipes and lesson plans for Sitka’s Fish To Schools lunch program coordinated by the Sitka Conservation Society). She grew up in Oregon and attended the University of Washington, where she trained under Seattle restauranteur Susan Kaufman, who also had a food cart and restaurants in Juneau. She moved to Alaska in 1998, working as chef for Kingfisher Charters & Lodge in Sitka before opening her restaurant.

During the competition, Nelson and sous chef Josh Miller will have an hour to prepare six plates for the judges and one for photos. Nelson and Miller have been practicing, and now feel they’re ready.

“We do this all the time. We cook under pressure,” Nelson said. “When we were practicing (Sunday) I said, ‘Look, we’re just having a dinner party for seven guests and let’s just make it in an hour. We got this.’”

• Sitka’s Fish to Schools program on international list of 16 innovative school lunch programs

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FoodTankLogoSitka’s Fish to Schools program is one of 16 school lunch programs from around the world making a difference, according to an international list released this month by the organization Food Tank.

The Fish to Schools program got its start at the 2010 Sitka Health Summit, when community members decided they wanted to see more locally harvested fish in school lunches. The Sitka Conservation Society coordinates the program, in partnership with local schools.

The program started off with a monthly local fish lunch choice at Blatchley Middle School, but the program quickly expanded to include weekly local fish lunch choices at all Sitka schools (including the state-run Mount Edgecumbe High School boarding school and the private The SEER School).

In addition to putting local fish on the school lunch menu, the program also includes education about the fishing industry and its impact on the community (about one in five adults in Sitka work in the fishing industry). Local fishermen and women periodically share lunches with the students, which helps the students connect with their local food system. Local fishermen also donate coho salmon to the program, to help keep it sustainable.

In May 2014, the Sitka Fish to Schools program released a guidebook so other school districts in Alaska could create similar programs. For more information about the Fish to Schools program in Sitka, contact Sophie Nethercut of the Sitka Conservation Society, sophie@sitkawild.org or 747-7509.