Chapter 1: Salmon…

salmon

appetizers:
Smoked-Salmon on a Plank
Sitka-Style Pickled Salmon
Drunk-Fisherman Smoked Salmon Cheese-Ball
Tsaina River Pan Fried Salmon-Cakes
Kenai River Smoked Salmon Cheesecake
Kachemak Bay Smoked Salmon/Potato Galette

luncheons:
Country-Club Salmon-Salad Spread
Drag-Queen Smoked Salmon and Sausage Baguettes
Princess Smoked Salmon Risotto
Teresa’s Salmon Pizza with Provolone Cheese
Smoked Salmon Pasta Salad w/ Sun-Dried Tomato Vinaigrette
Fishermen’s Inn Smoked Salmon and Fussili Mornay

suppers:
Three-Bears Salmon (Nut-Crusted Salmon w/ Blueberry Salsa &
Whiskey-Butter)
Quartz Creek Grilled Salmon Smothered in Peach-Onion Jam
Yukon River Coho Salmon w/ Cucumber-Dill Cream
 Salmon Wellington (or “Other Woman Salmon”)
River-Supper Salmon in Parchment
Growler Island Maple-Mustard Glazed Salmon Fillets
Steve-Teases-Me Salmon Lasagna
Asian Stuffed Party-Salmon

 

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30 lb. King Salmon, at Hawk Inlet along the shoreline of Admiralty Island, just across the channel from Juneau. You must kiss the first salmon of the season or the waters will give you no others!

 

A Story-Teller’s Recipes

   Anyone who’s been blessed enough to have worked passionately at something they truly love as long as I have is gonna have a wealth of tales to tell. That is why as you thumb through the pages of this book you’re gonna find that nearly every recipe is paired with a story. I was careful to try and assemble those that I thought were not only a good representation of the diverse types of cooking I’ve done throughout my career, and of my experience in kitchens across Alaska, but I set out also to hand-pick foods and dishes that had memories connected to them. So whether you’re reading this in a soft easy-chair under a crocheted afghan in your living room, or standing at the kitchen counter with a measuring cup in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other, hopefully there’ll be something on each page that you can read and somehow work with or otherwise enjoy!

*Use a recipe as a compass- not a map. By all means let it set your direction and recommend the way, but don’t let it dictate your every step. Make it yours by allowing it to serve you.

 

Salmon: Travels of a Lifetime

   We should all aspire to live a life filled with as much romance and renowned celebrity as the regal salmon. Is there a creature with a more poetic presence swimming in our streams and seas, and gracing our dinner plates? The life-cycle events of the salmon are among the most amazing and mystical of all creation.
   The tiny fingerlings are hatched in some remote, peaceful fresh-water stream surrounded by mountains and forest, then, instinct takes over, as the travels of a lifetime begin!  The newborns travel from their homes through any number of down-stream creeks and rivers until they find themselves in expansive deep salt-water seas. Here the animal undergoes biochemical changes that enable them to live, thrive and mature in the salt water, over a period of what scientists believe to be about seven years.
   Then one Spring, instinct kicks in again, and the full grown, fattened adult salmon with a lifetime behind it begins the long return journey of swimming back upstream, sometimes for thousands of miles, to the peaceful inland fresh-water place of their birth. The creatures complete this journey despite tremendous opposition in the form of floods, dams, raging rapids, and countless hungry predators, including the gluttonous grizzly bear!
   Once back in their beginning life-waters, these survivors spawn, and then die of exhaustion from the long cruel journey. In a short while their new offspring are hatched and begin the cycle all over again. Talk about the circle of life!

 

Smoked Salmon on a Plank

“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”
–Native American Saying

   
   Though this recipe’s name is smoked salmon on a plank, it could just as easily go by the name funeral parlor fish, and I’ll tell you why. Years ago when I was young and first starting out in kitchens I worked at a private country club. I was fortunate to work there because in addition to cooking menu items from the grill, broiler and sauté stations we also prepared many extravagant catered affairs. Putting out lavish buffets and large spreads of food so that they look deliciously pleasing to the eye is probably my favorite part about being a chef, and at jobs like this one a young cook got to flex his creative muscle and learn many manners of making food look not only delicious, but pretty.
   Amongst the beautiful buffets were always decadent dessert tables, fancy ice carvings and huge silver trays of cheeses, exotic fruit and berries, and sometimes too were iced trays of shucked oysters, clams and boiled shrimp. Always near the shellfish-bar was a mirror laid out flat like a tray which displayed a handsomely decorated salmon that had been poached whole, and chilled.
   One afternoon as dozens of waitresses, busboys and kitchen staff were putting the finishing touches on the gorgeous buffet for a wedding reception feeding two hundred, a few anxious guests filtered thru the foyer to the ball-room, sneaking past dozens of linen-dressed tables covered in fresh flowers and crystal, to where we were readying chafing dishes and trays of appetizers. As a co-worker was arranging capers, chopped onion and edible flowers around a copper tray that held a beautifully displayed whole, poached salmon I was piping the last of the whipped cream cheese onto the fish’s back where the dorsal fin normally would be. As we admired our work a young lady, pale, slim and wrapped from head to toe in shiny fabric got near, leaned far over to get a closer look, then abruptly shot straight up as an “ick!” spewed from the lips beneath her wrinkled-up nose. My co-worker and I glanced at one another, then back at the girl with a questioning look and I asked, “you don’t like salmon?”  Her response rambled forth with too much speed and confusion for me to pay attention for long, but what I did get from her was that not only was she a vegetarian, but that she also considered our salmon display to look more like a mortician’s corpse in a casket, than a chef’s lovingly prepared edible offering!  
   From that day forward I realized just how similar my work in a kitchen was to that of the staff of a funeral parlor! And today, I rarely prepare laid-out trays of whole poached anything. This preparation that follows is the resulting adaptation of that original whole poached salmon. Done right, this preparation is as elegant as it is simple.

   For a hundred different reasons any cook might find themselves wishing to invite folks over for a bite to eat, and they might want to offer something elegant, but find themselves running short on time. This “recipe” is for just such a time. Similar to the crab plate you’ll find in the crab section of recipes, this dish can be assembled from any number of ingredients, either well in advance, or at the last minute as guests are coming in the door. Again, as with the crab-plate, this dish may also be served in any number of manners: on a plate, on a plank, on a slab of rock or even at a camp-site on the up-turned lid of a large Tupperware bowl.

3-4 oz. smoked salmon per person
…plus:
any number or variation of the following selections: cream cheese, brie cheese cubes or cheddar cheese wedges, pickled boiled eggs, cornichons, gherkins or other pickles, shaved red onions or whole green onions, capers or olives, water-crackers, parmesan-croutons, pumpernickel toast-points, fresh berries, apple wedges or pear slices… use your imagination- or simply look inside your refrigerator!

Sitka-Style Pickled Salmon

“There is no love sincerer than the love of food.”  -George Bernard Shaw

   I first enjoyed this fresh-tasting appetizer at the boat-harbor in Sitka with my dear friend Henry. Sitka is an island community in south-east Alaska that was the original Russian capital of Aleyeska, and we went there to paint Henry’s boat and took several breaks throughout the sunny morning enjoying this dish with nothing more than a sleeve of saltine crackers. Henry is half Tlingit Native and half Norwegian, which to me perfectly explains this fish recipe, since it has Scandinavian roots linking it to traditional gavalox, as well as other north-country fish preparations.

   Always keep a pair of needle-nosed pliers in the kitchen for use in the cleaning of salmon, halibut and most any fish. Using them is the best way to remove tiny stubborn pin bones from a fillet without disrupting the meat and tearing it.

2 lb. salmon, uncooked and cut into cubes
1 c. kosher salt
4 c. white distilled vinegar
4 c. water
½ c. olive oil
1 lg. onion
½ c. pickling spice
½ c. sugar
6 garlic cloves
2 sprigs rosemary
2 dill sprigs
2 jalapenos, spilt and seeded

   In a medium bowl, toss the salmon in all of the salt and let sit for 45 minutes at room temperature, then rinse well with tap-water and drain.
   Place the salmon in a large saucepan and add cold water to cover fish by 2 inches. Bring to a low simmer, then remove from heat allow to sit in the same water for five more minutes. Drain off the poaching liquid. Mix all remaining ingredients, add the cooked salmon and gently toss together. Transfer all to crock or earthenware bowl. Cover and chill overnight. Serve. Will keep one week.

 

First Impressions of Alaska

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow mindedness.”
-Mark Twain

   There’s barely a soul on earth who doesn’t have their version of an image of Alaska tucked away in their mind. Most have impressions of a cold, dark place where Eskimos live in igloos. Those whose impressions go a bit deeper have allowed their interest to lead them to public television broadcasts and nature programming that depict deeper details like ‘round the clock summer sun, grizzlies wrestling for salmon swimming upstream to spawn, and cruise ships sailing through deep fjords surrounded by jagged glaciers.
   On Mother’s-Day-Eve 1992, I flew to Alaska in a wide-bodied DC-9 with many ideas of what I would find. Under the impression I was hired to stay up north for one summer- I soon learned that idea would be as wrong as most of my preconceived notions about the Last Frontier. My time in the Land of the Mid-Night Sun turned out to last for thirteen years; thirteen chilly summers.
   I had expected snow in Alaska- it was thrilling to catch falling flakes on one’s tongue in June! But I didn’t know I’d see summer days in the Interior that would surpass eighty degrees and reach toward ninety. Though not to completely go against my preconceived ideas- there were also summer days with cool breezes requiring fleeces and light sweaters be worn for comfort. I recall one July 4th wearing a flannel shirt and a leather bomber jacket and shuffling closer to a bonfire’s warm glow to ward off the shivers.
   I had expected record-sized cabbages at the Alaska State Fair, but I didn’t realize that the same rich soil would also bring to life dozens of species of blossoming wildflowers that would carpet the tundra as far as the eye could see.
   And I knew to expect “Eskimos” but I wasn’t aware that Alaska’s native population was intricately comprised of eleven distinct cultures including the Aleuts, Athabascans, Haidas, Inuit, Tlingit and Yupik.  
   I found Alaska to be a land of exaggerated geography, stimulating diversity and charming contrast. Some of the preconceived notions I took with me as I adventured north, turned out to be true- but there was so much more.
   What I didn’t know before Alaska was that one could fall in love with a place. I didn’t know that my one summer in Alaska would turn into thirteen years- or that leaving would affect my heart. But these things happened- this and so much more.  

   (And for the record, folks in Alaska do not live in igloos!)

Drunk-Fisherman Smoked Salmon Cheese-Ball
(Baptists Beware!)

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Platter of assorted cheese-balls.

   Years ago when I was small my family would often visit the home of my Aunt Florence and Uncle Dean. Trips to their house were famous for several reasons- first, Uncle Dean had a strong hand and always insisted on a gentleman’s handshake with all the young nephews. His grip was so powerful and so tight that often Aunt Flo had to coax him to loosen his grip on our young hands!
    The second thing that made visits to their home fun was that Uncle Dean had a billiards table! We cousins spent hours in their basement shooting pool and enjoying one another’s’ company over a friendly game.
   But the most important reason why visiting Dean and Flo was so fun was because Aunt Flo was a wonderful cook and she always had something wonderful bubbling on her back burner filling her kitchen with heavenly aromas! She created yummy spaghetti sauce and chili. One evening at supper she brought to the table a molded cheese ball made with cream cheese, dried beef and covered in freeze-dried chives. After one taste, I was hooked. I kidnapped Aunt Flo’s recipe and made it my own, and over the years I’ve added various ingredients to make it an entirely different appetizer! I even have an Alaskan version made with smoked salmon and blueberries. This is one of those creations that has simple roots but can be varied and tweaked by any cook to make it their own completely unique adaptation. Here is my Alaskan rendition, as well as Aunt Flo’s original version, and a few other variations I’ve come up with over the years.

   In most seaside Alaskan communities the “drunk fisherman” is a well-known character. This is not to say that all fishermen are drunks- but one popular past-time for fisher-folk after the hard work of their catch is behind them, is to belly-up to the bar and enjoy a frosty mug of suds, or a shot (or bottle!) of hard-liquor. This practice, of course often leads to a number of events that result in lots of craziness!
   The whiskey called for in this recipe can be slightly increased if you prefer a stronger taste of booze, or it may be left out all together if you plan serving to minors, pregnant women, Baptists or others who prefer not to take part in the alcohol.
   This simple recipe makes a delicious appetizer that can be quite impressive, and may be presented in any number of creative manners. You can pack it into a simple crock or dish, chill and serve as a spread, or it may be molded and shaped, then decorated with chopped parsley or herbs, toasted nuts, fancy edible flowers, or shaved-thin cucumbers. I’ve made this hundreds of times and I don’t think any two have ever looked exactly the same!

Two 8 oz. pkgs. cream cheese, softened at room-temperature
juice of 1 fresh lemon
3 T. whiskey
2 T. dill, chopped (fresh or dried)
2 green onions, chopped finely
1 c. hot-smoked salmon chunks
1 c. fresh blueberries

   Whip the softened cream cheese with the paddle attachment of an electric mixer on medium speed. When it becomes light and fluffy, add the lemon juice and whiskey, incorporating thoroughly. Turn off electric mixer. With a rubber spatula scrape sides of bowl removing all cheese back to bottom of bowl, then gently fold-in dill, green onions and smoked salmon. Pack this mixture either into a mold that is lined with plastic wrap- which will offer ease for un-molding later, or present in a decorative crock, or serving dish as a spread. Use fresh blueberries as a garnish on top of the crock of spread, or patterned across the fancy mold. Chill at least two hours. Serve with saltines, water-crackers, parmesan croutons, pita bread, rye toast-points or fresh veggies.

Ingredients for Aunt Flo’s Original Version:
1 lb. cream cheese, softened
4 oz. packaged dried beef
1 T. minced onion
2 T. dill pickle juice
freeze-dried chives

Hawaiian Luau:
smoked ham & pineapple
cream cheese, green onions, mustard,
parsley, garlic

Sicilian:
pepperoni & pine-nuts
cream cheese, red pepper flakes,
green onion, parsley

Monet:
toasted walnuts & bleu cheese crumbles
cream cheese, black pepper, brown sugar,
1 T.  armagnac

Vera Cruz:
bay shrimp & red sauce
cream cheese, red pepper flakes, horseradish,
parsley, green onions, pimiento-stuffed green olives, lemon

The Oregonian:
shredded extra-sharp cheddar cheese
dijon mustard
dark ale
chopped crisp bacon
chives

   If you’re like me- you like serving cheese, but remember…that we get a better sense of the taste and a brighter, fuller flavor when it’s brought to room temperature before serving. Chilled cheeses taken right from the refrigerator and wedged then popped onto the tongue cold will for the most part taste the same as all others with less distinguishing nuances, than if you bring it to table beforehand and allow it to sit a bit before sampling. The Swiss and French are the world’s largest consumers of cheese and many varieties they just store away slightly cooled in the cupboard- without refrigerating it at all.

 

Varieties of Salmon:
Salmon is enjoyed the world over as one of the very finest delicacies to be enjoyed at the table. The tastes of this fish range from gentle and mild, to deeply robust and rich in flavor. There are many delectable preparations, which highlight and enhance the delightful meal experience that this fish provides. There are a variety of species that offer slight differences in taste and richness as well. Perhaps no other fish created for man, swimming in rivers and seas enjoys a reputation like the salmon for gifting us with a lush, rich dining experience. Here are bits about the two common farmed varieties as well as the many species of wild salmon.

Farm-Raised Salmon are a product that some might argue introduce a coveted delicacy to world tables year ‘round, yet they are highly controversial especially in areas close to the coast where much of the economy relies on harvest of wild salmon, like Alaska. Some would say that farmed salmon has a taste and texture and color very similar to the “real” wild salmon varieties, while other die-hards would dispute this and say that there is no resemblance at all. The fact remains that amidst the controversy, this species is offered and available for purchase. As a chef who opts for optimum quality of product whenever possible, I have been guilty of buying farm-raised product many times during parts of the year when my freezer is empty and I have a taste for my favorite fish, and I have found it to be a suitable substitute. Yet when summer months roll around I have a smile in my sprit when the first wild Kings arrive at my local market. Absolutely nothing beats a just-caught creature fresh from its chilly wild waters! My hope is that farmed salmon increases in popularity because I honestly feel that anyone who tastes it and enjoys it will naturally be introduced to what will develop into a craving. This craving will no doubt in turn, fuel a desire to try and eventually prefer the incredible taste of wild Alaskan salmon caught by hardworking fisher-folk who go to great lengths to bring this outstanding creature to our table!  
   To me the farmed salmon is to its wild distant cousin- what hard, orange, store-bought, hot-house tomatoes in December are to the red, juicy August real thing pulled from summer dirt, jiggly as water-balloons! But that said- I reluctantly do eat December hot-house tomatoes, when I have no other choice.

Atlantic Salmon is a black-speckled silver creature that lives in cold waters of the North-Eastern United States and Eastern Canada, as well as Northern Europe, particularly Ireland, Scotland, Sweden and Norway. A netted fish can weigh from two to thirty pounds and its flesh is usually a delicate carnation-pink, resulting from the fish’s diet, rich in shrimp. In Europe’s Baltic region, where shrimp are scarce, the salmon’s flesh is almost white. Nowadays, most Atlantic Salmon sold and eaten is farmed product. Its year-round availability makes it a popular and economic choice on the American East Coast and in Europe.

Pacific Chinook or King Salmon, (occasionally called “Spring Salmon”) are the very largest of all salmon. A mature adult will weigh an average of forty pounds and can easily reach a hundred. This species is found all along the West Coast of the U.S and Canada and they flourish in Alaskan waters. Prized for its rich oils, which result in a robust flavor, the King is the very favorite on many tables. Known for its firm, succulent red flesh, this was the very first salmon to be commercially canned. Now few are actually canned- most Kings enter the market either fresh or smoked. One can find this species in market in several forms: steaks, fillets, whole or smoked. Sometimes there is a product called “Winter Kings” or “Ivory Salmon” which have a much paler, almost white flesh. These fish are caught at times of the year in waters where there are no shrimp or crustaceans available for the King to dine on, which results in a much lighter meat color.

Sockeye or Red Salmon, (occasionally called “Blueback Salmon”) are much smaller than the King, and have a firm, deep-red, fatty flesh. The meat is succulent and full of flavor and most consider it the prime species for canning, today. Sockeye are popular fresh or frozen and are cut into steaks or fillets. The adult weighs-in at an average of six to eight pounds, and can reach as high as fifteen pounds in open water.

Coho or Silver Salmon are very popular because of their convenient, compact size. They typically weigh two to twelve pounds and have a relatively high fat content so they are ideal for smoking.

Pink or Humpback Salmon is a small species usually weighing two to four pounds. It is very popular due to the fact that they usually arrive in extra-large runs and is mostly used for canning. This species is also wonderful prepared on the barbecue grill.

Chum or Dog Salmon have a firm, pink flesh and they are normally smoked or canned. Usual weights for a whole fish are four to ten pounds.

Japanese Cherry Salmon (masu) are found only in Japan, and like other Pacific species lives its life divided between fresh and salt water. When this fish matures and nears reproductive readiness its back turns black and sides a deep red and it begins its return migration back to its birth waters.

Steelhead Salmon are mysterious creatures whose exact lineage has been somewhat difficult to determine. In many areas they used to be called Steelhead Trout but have since been re-classified as members of the salmon dynasty. Historically there have always existed two camps of anglers- those who termed the Steelhead a trout, and those who preferred it be thought of as a salmon, and for some groups the argument can be cause for some heated discussion!

It was supposed to be just one summer…

small halibut

Tiny eight pound “chicken” halibut caught in Captain’s Bay, Dutch Harbor, halfway out on Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain.

dedication:

“One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.” -Luciano Pavarotti

Since I was young my cooking interest has been inspired and nurtured largely by women. This collection of writings is for those countless she-roes from my growing-up years, who welcomed a soft-spoken, curious boy into their cooking spaces. Every child deserves to find a place where they can move with grace and confidence- if not for the generous influence of these women, I might never have found mine. For gently encouraging not only cooking, but also writing, these friends and former teachers deserve special mention and gratitude: Alice… Sharon and Margaret… Mrs. Israel, Mrs. Smith and Miss Kuhlmann.

Also for John H. and Rusty T., my two all-time favorite “dream-team” kitchen co-workers…

Ultimately, I write with a select audience in mind: my little sister’s daughter and son. This is my gift to them, my explanation of part of my life- the beauty I see and the places I visit when I climb aboard the big airplane and head north. They have inspired me to share my Alaska story- so my goal has been to climb to the metaphoric attic, open the trunk and dig through to find remnants which will hopefully inspire them back. My goal will be met if my attempt to share with them some of the magic I’ve known is successful… so, to Karla’s children: Hailley  and Layne.

Me, H&L

Hailley, Layne and Uncle Kevin.

Lastly, for Mom- hers was the first kitchen I found my way in…

“He that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast.” -Proverbs 15:15

forward:

“Ain’t no man can avoid being born average- but ain’t no man got to be common.”
–Satchel Paige

Growing up in the heartland right where the crease in the open atlas splits the map, I had several obsessions, the biggest of which was food. From kindergarten, my pudgy frame required Sears’ husky-sized Tough-Skin jeans, so discovering cooking in a land where pork and corn were splendid delicacies was a natural for me.
As far back as I can recall I’ve enjoyed not only savoring a good meal, but all things associated with it: shopping for groceries, the cooking of different dishes- both everyday ones as well as the exotic- and entertaining at table with family, friends and even strangers.
These early culinary desires were instilled and nurtured in me first by a wonderful mother who was a fabulous country cook. She came from a Southern family and had a simple, basic kitchen repertoire and although never trained in cooking or even eating fancy fare, she had a way with anything that could be pan-fried in a cast-iron skillet, or simmered all day in a dutch-oven on the back-burner. The love Mom put onto her formica kitchen-table was the result of a dedication and passion that rivals those of any professional chef I’ve ever known or worked with. Her recipes and her kitchen-bounty are priceless treasures in my brain. No memory I have is clearer, nor can more easily be brought to the front of my recollection than the aromas and tastes of Mom’s food. She was the first to open my mind to the possibility of cooking as craft- with potential for serious career.
In addition to my Mom, I was inspired by other good cooks while coming up, as well. Many helped me discover the idea that I could make a good living as a chef. An aunt taught me important skills like revising recipes to make them my own- and what to do when you’ve prepared a meal for ten, and a half dozen more folks show up! One patient and generous neighbor allowed me to watch her for hours as she carefully piped vanilla butter-cream onto towering multi-tiered wedding cakes, while still another taught me skills at canning and preserving garden and orchard harvests. These people in my early life all happened to be women, and they helped me discover that I had the basic raw materials needed to pursue the culinary dream, namely: a natural creativity, a genuine enjoyment of sharing with others, and a confidence- or knack, if you will, for finding my way around the landscape of a kitchen. I guess one could say I was born with a culinary-compass deep in my brain that seemed to always point the way for me among pots and pans, and pantry-staples. For this God-given gift I am grateful- for cooking is about all I know how to do. If I had to make my living performing any other trade, I’d likely go hungry! So, I am indebted to these women, for they not only inspired in various ways, but they also helped an otherwise clumsy, awkward and untalented boy happen onto a great passion that was to become his life-long bread and butter.

introduction:

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”
–Eleanor Roosevelt

I began working in small-town tavern kitchens as a dishwasher and kitchen-boy in 1980, when I was just fourteen. Before then, my job experience had been limited to delivering evening newspapers and working in summer fields de-tasseling corn and walking beans.
The supper-clubs I worked in then were of the basic mid-western, steaks/fried-chicken/fried-catfish variety, where the home-style food was piled-high, and the choice beverage was an icy can of Coca-Cola or Pabst Blue Ribbon on tap. I still remember some of my job-tasks during that very first Friday night shift all those years ago. I scrubbed russet potatoes spotlessly clean for baking and wrapped them in shiny foil squares. I rinsed raw chicken quarters, removing chubby tailbone-nubs and thumbing-out the kidney from thigh pieces, and snipped the vein from beneath the ribs on the breast sections. I also shaved sweet onions paper-thin, to soak in buttermilk for the tavern’s famous crispy deep-fried onion-rings, piled knee-deep in a paper-lined plastic basket.
Comfort and familiarity in a stainless steel commercial kitchen was immediate for me. I spent nights after school, and on weekends during those years scrubbing pots and pans, bailing dirty grease out of deep-fryers and cleaning bathrooms, but in addition to these less-fun chores, I was also learning the ropes in these simple small-town kitchens. I knew that the bigger and better goal of attending culinary school and securing work in a high-class, big-city restaurant could be the big pay-off, one day down the road.
It was hard work for a young teenager. Some of my schoolmates weren’t sure whether to feel sorry for me, (for they knew I put in some awfully long hours even before my school-work got done late at night) or be envious of me, (because they also knew I earned “whopping” pay-checks!). However, more often than not, after a portion of my pay went into a savings account, the remainder was spent on treats and goodies that I shared with these friends. This natural generosity and spirit of giving was part of my make-up from an early age, and I feel it’s possibly the most important common trait found in those who decide to cook for a living. I subscribe to the notion that one cannot find success in a kitchen unless they first have the inborn calling for recognizing bounty and then, enjoy sharing it with those around them.
A few years later with high school behind me, and already a good bit of kitchen navigation under my belt for a young person my age, I moved from the country, three hours north- and a whole world away, to the Chicago area. There I secured an entry-level position at a huge, popular, bustling seafood restaurant with a continental menu. I knew I’d made it big as an eighteen year old pantry-boy, when I discovered the restaurant plated fish with their heads still on, and had a live-lobster tank, both epitomes of exotic food-elegance to a simple boy whose seafood palette hadn’t yet expanded beyond tuna-fish salad and whole fried catfish with crispy tail still attached!
I can remember feeling completely intimidated by the sophisticated, well-polished kitchen-staff dressed head-to-toe in chef’s-whites and by the confusing speed with which I watched everyone move. In back-of-the-house, line-cooks were whipping their arms left and right, sorting garnishes of rosemary sprigs and watercress. Broiler-boys were ignited in fiery flames as they maneuvered a hundred filet mignons, porterhouses and chateaubriands around the charbroil grill. Sauté cooks gripped a long-handled copper pan in each hand, one swirling whole sweet butter, white wine and shallots into a buerre blanc, while the other flipped a delicate, golden whole Dover Sole without missing a beat. Even the formal-attired wait-staff and bow-tied bus boys in front-of-the-house seemed orchestrated and elegant in their posture, manner and movement. In contrast, I was this porky country kid with a ketchup-stained collar and Miracle Whip on his breath, coming to the city to learn a trade, who had trouble even fastening the countless gaping cloth-knot-buttons on his first white double-breasted cook’s coat!
Simultaneous to my first big-time job, I also registered into the culinary-arts program at a nearby suburban community college. As an eighteen year old, my dream would have been to attend the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York- or perhaps cross the Atlantic to pursue diploma at London’s Le Cordon Bleu or Paris’ Escoffier Ecole de Gastonomie Francaise at the legendary Hotel Ritz.  But at that time in my life I talked myself into thinking those lofty academic dreams were beyond my rural reach. Today I would encourage anyone with almost any career interest to seek higher learning and to take the risk of reaching out towards a university education regardless of how expensive it is or what limitations one might imagine stand in his or her way. In those days though, in my mind, ignorant of financial aid options, lots of imaginary stuff stood between me and an expensive education.
Today, many successful chefs have a formal culinary degree, however, throughout history and still today, many without it have also achieved great success. I have tremendous respect for those who take the step of attending school, for in many cases it shows great determination and seriousness in one’s approach to the field. However, I’ve also worked alongside many who did attend school, though the only evidence of that was their own word and the paper degree hanging on the wall! My thought is that if you don’t have the necessary natural attributes, and if you’re not destined to excel in the field of cooking, then no amount of schooling will make you great. By the same token, if you’re meant to be a great chef, then the lack of a formal education will never prevent you from it. The truth is- many folks simply are not born students and find it difficult to sit at a desk and learn in a classroom environment- many of us require a more hands-on, concrete approach to learning, which can most often be obtained on-the-job, I feel. Luckily, like many professions, cooking is a craft that can be learned in a variety of ways, including formal culinary school, or the less formal school of hard knocks!
My student-career at community college turned out to be short-lived, for I ended up dropping out of the curriculum after only one semester. As soon as I realized that time spent at school prevented me from accepting over-time work at the restaurant, which paid time-and-a-half after eight hours, I stopped going to class.
Before long, as is typical, life in the kitchen began to absorb my every waking hour. I was learning so much each and every day. I would be hard-pressed to choose which place I would learn more at- school or work, but the reality was, I was paying to attend school, while work was paying me to show up. Sure I had regrets about the decision I made to leave school, but between working the extra-long hours learning my way and finding my voice gastronomically, and cashing my “hefty” paychecks, I rarely had time to consider whether I should think about continuing education. At that time I justified dropping out of school by thinking I had no need to spend money and valuable time attending classes in order to achieve the career that I was already enjoying and excelling at!
My day-to-day education on-the-job in those early days, unfolded typically like this: Monday I learned the “mother sauces” and whisked up a mighty fine hollandaise, from which I made sauces béarnaise, by adding a tarragon and shallot reduction, then choron, simply by stirring in tomato paste to the béarnaise. Next I simmered a béchamel from which I made veloute by adding white stock, and mornay, by adding gruyere cheese. Like most cooking, preparing sauces took years to master. Later that same shift, I was handed a boning knife and guided in breaking down a completely bloody veal leg, then a hundred pound swordfish!
Tuesday I would be called-in to work three hours early by the chef, to find myself in the bakeshop folding and working puff pastry with sweat dripping from my forehead, as brioche dough proofed nearby and three dozen ricotta-mascarpone cheesecakes cooled on the rack behind. Baking is still something I enjoy, and making one’s way among flour and sugar is a lifelong learning process, indeed.
At what I thought was the end of that eleven-hour shift, I was then dragged by the arm to the banquet kitchen to quick help dress three hundred wilted spinach salads, then to plate-up just as many chicken Veronique’s.
The next night I might assist the broiler-cook on the restaurant’s line by slicing so many prime rib portions that my arm would cramp and ache, and by garnishing and doming hundreds of plates, then expedite on the server’s side of the line by lighting drawn-butter votives and spearing cocktail forks through yellow-muslin-wrapped lemon halves. The learning went on and on…
After making my way and being beneficiary to the kindness and knowledge of many for a decade, at age twenty-four, after ten years in kitchens, I was offered a sous chef position at an historic, luxury hotel in Peoria, Illinois. A few years after that, but still at a young age, I proudly landed my very first executive-chef position at an Alaskan hotel owned by a world-renowned cruise line company. And even though I was a chef for years, these days, as the title of this book reflects, I call myself a “cook”. There are many reasons for this, the main one being that a “chef” in most folks’ minds tends to be defined by the French term designating the white-toqued, head-honcho of the kitchen, the number one magician, the top of the food-chain in the day-to-day life of a busy restaurant. Although my background includes many years leading teams in hot, steam-filled, fly-buzzy kitchens of high-volume, stressful hotels, country clubs and remote-site Alaskan work-camps it has now been a while since I have endured that daily grind of cooking on my feet before sun-up, and doing it still long past sun-down. While having my hands in food at times is still very much a part of what I do, I now divide my day with various other duties too, taking me from the heat of the kitchen much of the time. So I feel honestly, that the revered and respected term “chef” is something I must modestly hand-off for now, and leave for another who’s taken my place and paid their dues. After all, I still work some mighty long days, but nothing I’ve done since compares with the strict and stressful regimen of actually being a chef and operating a kitchen, and guiding its staff day in and day out. I am proud to say that I was once a chef, but now I am a hobbyist, a cook.

Another obsession I had while growing up was winter. While I appreciated all four seasons in my rural farm-town, winter held for me a quiet, dignified magic. I remember at ten years old delivering newspapers door-to-door in knee-deep snow at twelve below zero with a purple-black sky overhead. The silent stillness as I strolled amid falling flakes painted a proud landscape for me to walk within- a place that was clean and pure and perfect. I pretended I was sheltered inside a snow globe that with a gentle shake would re-distribute white flakes and cover all in sparkling luster.
This love of winter eventually led to a longing to be on a road that runs north, to explore and discover Alaska. This was before the days of cable television and the beautiful nature programming depicting the lovely scenery and rugged terrain of the last frontier. I had to familiarize myself with Alaska’s beauty and bounty first-hand. So, I researched at the public library and soon found a classified section of a Seattle newspaper busting at the seams with kitchen jobs in Alaska! It seemed there was no end to the need for trained cooks and chefs in the far north. The four main industries in Alaska- oil, mining, commercial fishing and tourism all required staffs with experience and kitchen know-how, so I mailed out a dozen resumes and waited.
The wait wasn’t long. Within days I received a phone call from the chef at a tiny fisherman’s inn, operated by a huge crab-processing company out on the Aleutian Island chain. I was interviewed by the chef over the phone, quizzed about cooking techniques, safety and sanitation practices, and assured that I would receive a follow-up call soon. The very next day, the second call came. I felt confident, and was fully expecting to be given a second interview, and then perhaps to discuss the possibility of my traveling to Alaska, or meeting halfway in Seattle for an in-person interview. To my surprise, I was offered the sous chef job right then and there over the phone! I packed my knives, hugged my family and friends, and within a week I was on a DC-9 climbing the globe to Anchorage, with the Johnny Horton hit, “North to Alaska!” ringing in my head!
After over thirteen years in the magical north, I feel the treasure-cache of memories I keep up between my ears is so overflowing it’s high time I figure out a way to share them. This book is my best effort at just that.

“There are thousands of thoughts lying within a man that he does not know till he takes up the pen and writes.” -William Makepeace Thackeray

Kevin J. Olomon
Bloomington, Illinois
May, 2010