The salt life

Summer 2017
Chris Wang ’94 in front of his fishing boat

Photo by Laura Flippen

When salmon are young, they leave their freshwater homes and journey to the ocean, where they spend their adult lives, finding nourishment in salt water. Like the fish that have yielded his livelihood, Christopher Wang ’94 had long felt lured to the sea.

“It was just this feeling,” said Wang, who hitchhiked to Seward, Alaska, the summer after his first year at Colgate. He set up camp on the edge of town and walked a mile to the docks daily to ask fishermen for a job until he got work. “It wasn’t a well-thought-out plan,” he admitted.

Twenty-seven years later, it turns out to have been prescient. Wang is successfully running the Gypsy Fish Company — so named because “it fits the lifestyle I’ve been living: a wide, meandering path, working seasonally, traveling a lot.” He spends two months of the summer fishing in Bristol Bay and then returns to his home in Santa Cruz, Calif., to sell his catch. Wang didn’t start out as a likely candidate for being an ocean fishmonger. He was a central New York native who had only been on a boat once (and he threw up the entire time). But “I had this feeling that [being on the ocean] was either something I’ve known or want to know more of,” he said.

He spent his summers in college returning to Alaska to fish. After graduating with a history degree, he enrolled in boat-building school in Maine. In 1998, he was hired by the Sea Education Association (SEA) as the steward/cook.

Unlike the ocean, the kitchen was a familiar place. He learned to cook as a child, making dumplings with his mom, a Chinese immigrant who was strict with her four boys and expected them to help in the kitchen. Required family dinners further established for Wang the importance of bonding over food. And throughout his early adulthood, Wang held temporary stints in the kitchens of selectively chosen restaurants, where he could learn different skills.

Working with SEA for 10 years, Wang cooked in a small galley that was quite literally a constantly shifting environment. “The boat’s usually heeled over quite a bit, and stuff is sliding around,” he said. “You have to know how to manage movement and weird angles.”

After SEA and then spending two years as a personal chef, Wang’s connection to Alaska resurfaced when he was on a beach in Mexico, of all places. While surfing, he met an Alaskan fisherman who became his good friend and reintroduced Wang to dragging nets in the 49th state.

He started the Gypsy Fish company in 2011, and it’s been growing rapidly ever since. Last year, Wang doubled his revenue. He stores the thousands of pounds of sockeye salmon he catches and sells it throughout the year. Distribution takes place in the homes of his friends, where simple transactions turn into social gatherings. “At its heart, the mission of my business is to build community through food,” Wang said. “We’ve become so detached from where our food comes from. I think people are really looking for a connection — in a lot of ways.” At these informal get-togethers and on his website, Wang provides salmon recipes and tips. He’ll occasionally host cooking lessons (most recently dumpling making) at his house, too.

“Salmon can be thought of as fishermen — harvesting the bounty of the land and moving it great distances,” he said. And, vice versa, Wang can be compared to a salmon, following his instincts to the ocean and bringing back food for his community.

— Aleta Mayne

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