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By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer
Ketchikan commercial fisherman LaDonna Gundersen recently launched her new cookbook, “The Little Alaskan Crab Cookbook,” featuring photography by her husband, Ole Gundersen.
The small-format, hardbound book is the sixth cookbook LaDonna Gundersen has published. Like the other five, it contains recipes she created on the couple’s 32-foot gillnetter “LaDonna Rose.”
“They’re not one-pot meals,” Gundersen emphasized.
“What’s really neat about all my cookbooks,” Gundersen said in an interview at a local restaurant with Ole alongside, “is because I’m cooking in such a small space that all of my cookbooks — all of them — they’re geared for small-space cooking. They have short ingredient lists, easy to put together, small-space cooking. People love the books because of that.”
Gundersen’s love of storytelling was apparent as she shared the tale of how she became a cookbook author.
She and Ole Gundersen met at a pizza parlor in Washington state, where Ole Gundersen was attending photography school. She said that Ole told her about the wonders of Alaska, and about his fishing adventures. Not long after, they got married and decided to start fishing commercially on the 40-foot wooden boat they’d purchased.
As they prepared for their first trip, LaDonna Gundersen said she figured the only way to cook in a boat’s galley would be to stock up on processed and packaged foods.
“I was only, like, 23 years old, so I had absolutely no idea how to cook on a boat, let alone cook on one of those little diesel-burning oil stoves, so I had no idea what to do,” she said.
They headed out to the fishing grounds, and “it was the worst weather,” she said.
Ole Gundersen added, “The whole season was just rough — every time we’d go out. It was just terrible weather.”
LaDonna Gundersen said she was immediately seasick — or so she thought.
When a friend suggested that the junk food they’d stocked up on might be full of monosodium glutamate, and that might be the problem, the couple dismissed the idea at first. Finally, with no relief from her sickness bouts, they realized a change had to be made.
“Ole said, ‘Well, we’ll just go back to eating plain,’” Gundersen said, so they returned to an original idea they’d had to eat simple foods such as rice, salmon, halibut and broccoli.
“That cured the seasickness,” she said.
That’s when she finally researched the hazards of MSG, and began to be very careful to avoid it.
As LaDonna Gundersen spent more time in Ketchikan with Ole’s mother, Kay Gundersen — who owned and operated the iconic “Kay’s Kitchen” restaurant for 28 years — she began to sharpen her cooking skills.
“I had the pleasure of working right beside her for a long time,” LaDonna Gundersen said, adding that “she was more of a gourmet cook,” making gravies, roast beef, using sour cream, mayonnaise, plenty of sugar and “always dessert after every meal.”
LaDonna Gundersen also began to gather food preparation savvy as a server at the then newly opened Salmon Falls restaurant, Annabelle’s Famous Keg & Chowder house, and at the Cape Fox Lodge restaurant. She said she paid attention to how food was prepared, how it was presented and what customers liked.
After fishing and working in the Ketchikan area for about nine years, LaDonna Gundersen said she decided she wanted to move south.
She said she recalled Ole saying, “Well, if we’re going to move, then we’re going to buy a business — so, we bought a bakery and a deli.”
The business was in Poulsbo, Washington, where they’d first met, she said.
A few months later, she said she was taken aback when Ole announced “It’s time to go fishing.”
Ole Gundersen explained, “The business needed the money.”
After four years of Ole Gundersen leaving to fish in the summers, they decided the time apart was not working.
“It was too painful, and our marriage was suffering,” she said, so they decided to sell the business and go back to full-time fishing together, in Southeast Alaska.
LaDonna Gundersen explained, “We pinky swore that we were never going to leave each other ever again. If I wasn’t going fishing, then he’s not going fishing. When it’s over for me, it’s over for him too. We’re in it together.”
That’s when she decided she was going to write her first cookbook, based on the recipes she’d created for the bakery and deli. That idea was quickly squashed by the new owners when they threatened to sue if she published. The contract would only allow her to publish the recipes when the business sold once again.
In a couple of years, the business was sold, and the path was open to finally publishing. LaDonna’s mother-in-law Kay Gundersen had just published her own cookbook, “Kay’s Kitchen,” so LaDonna Gundersen gleaned advice from her. The whole family was enthusiastic about the book project.
The new black-and-white, spiral-bound book, “Alaskan Rock’n Galley,” featured 200 recipes “of basically everything that we were eating on the boat and what we were creating in that bakery,” LaDonna Gundersen said, adding that she still enjoys the recipes from that book.
That book sold well, and Gundersen was already percolating ideas for the next book.
“So, I thought, ‘Well, it seems like it would be natural that I would write a salmon cookbook, I’ve been salmon fishing for 25 years or something.”
She published “Salmon, Desserts & Friends” in 2011.
Unlike the first book, this one was in full color. That’s when Ole Gundersen brushed off his photography skills, learned the ins and outs of digital photography and dove into becoming the illustrator for LaDonna’s books.
“He snapped that first picture, and it was like, ‘Whoa, look at this,’” LaDonna Gundersen said.
“That book has 54 salmon recipes in it — I have a few more than that,” she said, adding that she’s considering writing another salmon cookbook. She said salmon recipes are very important to them, as they eat the fish nearly every day — sometimes two or three times daily.
“The Little Alaskan Crab Cookbook” is the newest in a series of smaller-format books that LaDonna Gundersen launched in 2015 with “The Little Alaskan Salmon Cookbook,” and continued with “The Little Alaskan Halibut Cookbook” in 2017.
Gundersen said she tests recipes out on the water, and designs her books on her laptop in between jobs while out on the fishing grounds.
“What’s neat about testing the recipes,” she said, “is the fisherman that are fishing around us, they also get to taste the recipes.
“When I’m deep into recipe testing, I could test four or five recipes a day. It’s like Thanksgiving on our boat, every single day.”
She added that her husband’s highly developed palate, created by growing up with a gourmet-cook mother, is critically important to testing her recipes.
“It was so simple — it was like, I would make a dish — if Ole liked it and approved of it, if he’d eat it and want seconds,” that was an approved recipe, she said.
“The Little Alaskan Crab Cookbook” features 42 recipes, LaDonna Gundersen said. Like all of her recipes, they are designed to be practical for someone working in a small galley with limited resources. The ingredient lists are short, with no exotic ingredients, and are simple to create.
“These recipes are for busy people,” she explained. “Busy people on the go.”
She said the basic ingredients don’t vary much between her recipes, making it easy for cooks with limited space and time.
“Pretty much the staples are all the same, because I don’t really have a choice. I don’t have a pantry or anything — I just have a box to put my stuff in,” she explained.
She also receives her groceries while out on the fishing grounds by giving a list to a tender crew, who then shops, then delivers the goods to her. Sometimes she doesn’t get what she expected because the store was out of an item or two, so she is forced to get creative.
During the month of May, as the couple waits to fish the king salmon opening in mid-June, they are working on Princess and Cunard cruise ships sharing information and giving cooking demonstrations.
They produced, on request of a cruise director, a 13-minute video highlighting their lives as commercial fishermen. Their presentation will open with that video, LaDonna Gundersen said, and Ole Gundersen will teach attendees about the five salmon species and other fish facts while LaDonna will give seafood cooking demonstrations.
Gundersen’s books are sold locally by several downtown retailers, as well as online.
Gundersen summed up her and her husband’s motivation for publishing the books: “What drives the whole thing is our love for Alaska and the fact that we’re commercial fishermen. You know, we get to see it all, we get to be with nature, and we want to share that.”
LaDonna and Ole Gundersen will hold a book signing from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday at the Soho Coho store on Creek Street, downtown.