A taste of octopus changed Rik Pruett’s life. Decades later, he’s hoping to pay that forward.
When he was a teenager, Pruett was hanging out with friends in the Mendenhaven neighborhood in the Mendenhall Valley when one of them pulled out a small tin. Inside the can were chunks of smoked octopus.
“He was trying to gross me out,” Pruett, now 57, recalled. “Little did he know who he was dealing with.”
Pruett took a bite and loved it. That flavor stuck with him, and about 15 years later he started experimenting with smoking octopus. He honed his style, little by little, over the years, which led to him entering his octopus in the 2000 Haines Fair. It won an award at the fair, prompting him to call it “Rik’s Blue Ribbon” smoked octopus.
Now, he calls his product “Alaskan Kraken Smoked Octopus,” and he’s ready to get it out to a bigger market. For years, he’s been giving the octopus to friends or family members as gifts, but soon you’ll be able to find glass jars of the product in stores including Alaska Seafood Company, Hooked Seafood, Jerry’s Meats, Haines Packing Company, Hoonah Treasures and a couple gift shops.
“There’s really no market for it,” Pruett said. “I aim to change that with this product.”
There is no commercial fishery for octopus, so Pruett has had to make some connections. Over the years, Pruett has developed a relationship with shrimpers and fishermen who end up with octopus as bycatch — that is, they catch it unintentionally. Sometimes there are people at the docks who are looking to buy octopus, but Pruett said they’re often looking for it as cheap bait.
Pruett, on the other hand, has made a habit of buying octopus from them. Whenever they ask him how much he wants, he replies, “All of it.” Sometimes that results in him getting a few dozen pounds of octopus, but lately he’s been able to get even more than usual.
Alaska Department of Fish & Game Regulations Coordinator Shellene Hutter said there hasn’t been a change to octopus bycatch regulations since 2009, but Pruett has been able to form enough connections and land enough large purchases of octopus to scale up his operation in recent years. He’s jumped through regulatory and certification hoops, and said now he’s just awaiting high-quality labels to be delivered before his product hits the market.
Piecing together the puzzle
Pruett calls it the “culmination of a dream,” a process which has lasted decades as he’s perfected his recipe. It takes people from all over the community — from the docks to the kitchens of seafood companies — to make the octopus into the delectable final product that it is.
“I have to actually work with two different kitchens on this, because nobody has the pieces to my puzzle,” Pruett said. “It’s a complex process to get this from raw octopus into a jar.”
He didn’t want to give too much away about his process, but he works with Alaska Seafood Company and Hooked Seafoods to clean, prepare, boil and smoke the octopus. Pruett said he owes Dick Hand of Alaska Seafood Company a debt of gratitude for all the advice Hand has provided on the business end of this project as well as the actual preparation aspect.
“He took me by the hand and led me every step of the way,” Pruett said.
Pruett’s figured out that to make the best octopus, the key is to not overdo anything. He only smokes it for about an hour, and he doesn’t oversalt it either.
As a result, the octopus has more of a hint of salt with a smoky finish instead of tasting like it was just in a bonfire. The taste and texture are akin to smoked crab and smoked oysters, and the biggest surprise is how tender the meat is. Those who have eaten octopus before will recall that the meat can be a bit (or more than a bit) chewy. Pruett’s product is so tender that even the ends of the tentacles — which Pruett says are the best pieces — almost fall apart in your mouth as you chew.
“I have made so many converts because of the fact that it has such a great texture,” Pruett said, “and it’s not … oversalted and it’s not oversmoked,” Pruett said.
He hopes to convert others, too, as Alaskan Kraken Smoked Octopus hits shelves and ends up in Juneauites’ living rooms and even in the hands of cruise passengers swinging through town. When he talks about his product, and especially when he eats it, it’s clear that the excitement and energy of the young boy decades ago trying his first bite of smoked octopus is still there.
“It’s been a long road,” Pruett said. “It’s been a labor of love, and I’m finally here. Like I said, it all began 45 years ago with this can of octopus, which became a quest for me to be able to recreate that flavor, which I finally did.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.