Learning from a master smoker

Story by Alistair Gardiner, originally published in the Kodiak Daily Mirror, republished with permission.

KODIAK — “OK,” said Chris Sannito, “We’re gonna rack our jerky and finally get that oven going.”

Students lay freshly brined strips of salmon on racks for smoking at the 2018 Smoked Seafood School, in the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center. Photo by Alistair Gardiner, Kodiak Daily Mirror

It was 10:30 a.m., Thursday morning, and this year’s Smoked Seafood School was already in full swing. A small crowd wearing gloves and hair nets was gathered in a room at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center that was full of machines were cutting, brining and smoking fish. The two-day class, which is run by Alaska Sea Grant and Manufacturing Alaska Extension Partnership, is taught by the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Chris Sannito, a seafood technology specialist and ASG’s in-house fish smoking expert.

The workshop costs $270 and, by the end of the week, participants will have learned the basic principles of fish smoking, brining, making fish sausage, and processing salmon roe for red caviar, among other things.

One of this year’s students was Roger Meeks, from Anchorage.

“We just started this morning, at 8:30,” he said. “We’ve got sockeye and chum salmon. First we filleted them, then we ran them through the pin machine, so they’re deboned. Then we ran them through the skin machine, so they’re boneless, skinless fillets.”

Meeks said that they’re producing several different types of product simultaneously. As such, they left the skin on some of the fillets, and portioned them up; others, they left intact for cold-smoking.

“This is the tumbler over here,” said Meeks, pointing to what looked like an oversized rock-polisher. “We stripped up a bunch of the fish – 25 pounds of it. That tumbler has a vacuum and so all of the brine and jerky spices get sucked right into the meat.”

The tumbler speeds up the brining process; rather than sitting overnight, the strips only stayed in the tumbler for roughly 30 minutes, before the class placed them on oiled racks and put them into an oven to dehydrate and smoke. The following morning, the class would have ten racks of freshly jerked salmon.

As soon as the oven door closed, Chris Sannito held up a handful of wood chips, explaining they were Alderwood. He noted that they would switch to Cherrywood to smoke the lox.

Much of this was familiar to Meeks.

“I am a professional smoker,” he said. “I own a company that smokes fish in Anchorage: Alaskan Smoked Salmon and Seafoods – that’s what I do for a living.”

Meeks said he decided to take the class for a couple of reasons, one of which is that the curriculum involves making a few products that he has no experience in, including sausage and smoked black cod. He said he’s considering adding those items in his business, but he wanted to explore the process first.

“I wouldn’t mind seeing them produced in an educational environment, before I screw up a bunch of really nice fish,” he said.

The equipment was another reason. Meeks expressed an interest in investing in one or two of the machines that were dotted around the room.

“I wanted to be exposed to the equipment that they’ve got. I knew of this lab. They’ve got one of everything,” he said. “These are ten, thirty, forty thousand dollar machines. So getting my hands on them was another part of the class that I wanted.”

But, Meeks said, possibly the biggest pull was Sannito.

“It’s a killer class so far,” said Meeks. “I don’t know if you know anything about Chris’s background, but he’s like the state of Alaska ultimate guru on any kind of fish processing. He’s a great teacher.”

Even though he’s been smoking fish for over 25 years, Sannito, doesn’t see himself this way.

When the Kodiak Daily Mirror asked him if he knew people referred to him as a guru, he replied, “Er, I don’t know about that… I’m just trying to learn and pass on what I’ve learned.”

This is Sannito’s fifth time running the workshop. He said people have come from all over the country to learn more about smoking.

“We’re bringing people in from many states, We’ve got Colorado, Florida …,” he said.

Out of the class of a little over 20 people, only two were locals: Tim and Jeremy Abena.

Jeremy Abena was attending to learn a bit more about smoking, in preparation for the re-opening of Pickled Willy’s, a small, local seafood company which closed last December. Abena now owns the business and is planning to open up shop later this year.

“We’ll be doing fresh, frozen, as well as smoked,” he said. “I’ll be doing pretty much anything and everything local to Kodiak – including sea cucumbers and hopefully a few other different little things.”

Sannito seems comfortable in the lab, which is to be expected – he studied food science in this exact room in the early nineties.

“This is where I started and I kind of learned on these commercial ovens,” he said. “But some of the best smoked salmon does come from the backyard smokers here.”

Sannito explained that, after the salmon jerky is done, he’s going to show the class how to do hot-smoked Yukon chums, then cold-smoked lox. He ushered a Kodiak Daily Mirror reporter into a walk-in freezer, pointing to several totes of salmon. Some were soaking in a dark brown liquid, others were covered in a powdery mixture of salt and sugar.

“So we’re dry-brining here for the lox, and the wet-brining is for the hot-smoke,” he said.

Although the majority of the students’ questions were directed at Sannito, many of the participants were asking each other about their personal methods. Sannito said this is simply the nature of seafood smoking.

“It’s like wine-making. There’s thousands of different ways to do it and everyone has their technique,” he said. “We’re trying to teach them, for whatever artistic part of it they do, that they can do it in a way where they can sell it and meet the DEC and FDA requirements.”

While many business-owners (both current and aspiring) were present, not all were looking for information to profit off. John Burrows, a seafood technical program coordinator from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, was attending on a work assignment.

“Primarily, I serve as a resource for scientific information, such as nutrition, safety, quality assurance, utilization for the marketing departments at ASMI,” said Burrows. “We’re trying to better understand and market smoked Alaskan seafood, so we’re trying to bring together what makes it special if it’s from Alaska.”

Burrows, who was taking copious amounts of notes, explained he was looking to understand things like the different methods of smoking, the different seafoods that can be smoked, what goes into each process.

“The hope would be to benefit anyone who smokes any product commercially in the state of Alaska,” he said. “Seeing how it’s done and how advanced some of the machinery is has been an eye-opening experience.

Also present was Akcinia Kulikov, from Homer. She said she’s been smoking fish since the age of 11 and that it’s a part of her Russian heritage.

“That’s kind of our culture: we smoke fix. We do lox, we do caviar,” she said.

Kulikov said, in the past, she’s processed and smoked hundreds of thousands of pounds of fish by hand and on her own. Seeing the efficiency that some of the machines added to the process, was a revelation for her too.

“I’ve heard of all of this equipment, but to actually see them being used, it’s like ‘oh my god…’” she said.

Kulikov was attending the class as one of the steps towards building a new business. Ultimately, she intends to get HACCP-certified.

“This is something else we can do with our fish, instead of selling it straight to the cannery,” Kulikov said. “The way fishing has been, especially in the Cook Inlet, it seems like it’s time to diversify. Just being a commercial fisherman is not going to pay the bills.”

According to Kulikov, there were a lot of closures in her local commercial salmon fishery this year. Now, she’s looking at potentially branching into more niche markets with a higher profit.

“So I decided, you know what? I’m going to come here, learn, get certified, and if our season is bad again – which I pray it’s not – instead of having only 25,000 pounds to sell only to a cannery, we’re going to add value to our product – because we have to,” she said. “We still have to pay bills.”

After they broke for lunch, Sannito pointed to a large stack of fish boxes.

“Each student will carry home a nice box of smoked fish that they can bring back to their family,” said Sannito.

“We do many workshops through the year, but this is my favorite,” he added. “This is a fun one.”