Interview with Kirsten Dixon, Chef of The Cooking School at Tutka Bay Lodge
--> The following interview was made possible by the NW Tastemaker, a culinary travel publication forthcoming from Northwest Travel Magazine. To read more interviews with the best chefs in the Pacific Northwest, visit Northwest Travel Magazine and TableTalkNorthwest.com.
Kirsten Dixon, Chef of The Cooking School at Tutka Bay Lodge
Accessible only by helicopter or a 25-minute ride by water taxi, The Cooking School at Tutka Bay is part of the Tutka Bay Lodge, a six-accommodation luxury lodge located near the town of Homer on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. The restaurant offers meals and cooking classes to its guests, and the restaurant is open to the public on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Kirsten Dixon owns the lodge and restaurant with her husband Carl, and her cuisine focuses on fusing Alaska's one-of-a-kind ingredients, such as nagoonberries and the famous oysters of Kachemak Bay, with international cooking techniques. Having attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, she is also a cookbook author and holds a master's degree in gastronomy from the University of Adelaide in Australia.
1. How do you describe Northwest cuisine in Alaska?
Local meats, which are moose, caribou and other game, find their way to our tables more often than not. A high proportion of Alaskans are gatherers of game and other wild edibles. Collecting blueberries in the summertime is practically a religion. Other berries that are abundant are red currants, salmonberries, and a long list of lesser-known treasures, such as nagoonberries (they taste like a cross between raspberries and strawberries).
Many Alaskans gather salmon and other fish in the summertime to eat in the winter, just as natives have done for thousands of years. Salmon is particularly revered in Alaska—just look at all of the t-shirts, wind chimes, doormats, and coffee mugs—you’ll see salmon impressions everywhere. We have strong association with Native cuisine here, as seen in fish preparation and flatbreads; our food is a nod to the Goldrush Era, with sourdough, beans, and other turn-of-the century foods.
We have a strong affinity to our Russian heritage and there are many Alaska dishes that have Russian roots. We also relate to the Pacific Ocean and Rim, being the closest U.S. location to Asia. Japanese elements are found throughout our cuisine. We also relate to the far Arctic and Scandinavian communities in a way that lower Northwest communities perhaps don’t. We are a cuisine of survival and strength, perseverance and love of place.
2. Who are six of your favorite purveyors that you regularly work with?
Pyrah Farm in Palmer Alaska, for vegetables.
Midnight Sun Farm in Palmer, Alaska, for honey.
Seafoods of Alaska in Homer, Alaska, for fish.
Favco in Anchorage, Alaska, for fish.
Jackalof Bay Oysters in Jackalof Bay, Alaska, for oysters.
Will Grow Farm in Homer Alaska, for produce.
Tim Wilkes Fisherman in Jackalof Bay, Alaska, for salmon.
3. When you go out for a nice meal, what are two or three of your favorite spots?
La Baleine Café in Homer, Alaska— They offer organic, upscale, casual cuisine and serve breakfast all day.
Jen's Restaurant in Anchorage, Alaska— They make fantastic à la minute, Danish-inspired cuisine.
Jack Spratt in Girdwood, Alaska— They always have good food and a friendly atmosphere. It's a perfect stop when we drive from Homer to Anchorage.
4. Who are two Northwest chefs that you admire?
Ruben Gerber of Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, Alaska— Ruben’s cuisine is thoughtful and elegant and always reflects the integrity of an important and talented chef.
Logan Cox of Sitka & Spruce in Seattle— Logan is a hard worker. He never compromises with his cuisine, and his talent with local fish and wild edibles is legendary.
5. In your opinion, is there an area of Northwest cooking that doesn't receive enough attention?
Alaska as a culinary destination is not really on the roadmap, but it should be. Our honey is some of the best in the world. We are able to easily grow organic food because of our cold winters. Our Russian-Alaskan food is fantastically delicious. Reindeer chili on a cold winter’s day with a slab of sourdough hits the spot. Our carrots are sweeter, our berries are bigger, and we have 24-hour sunlight during our summer growing season. You get the point.
6. Looking toward the future, what are you most excited to do in the kitchen?
I am proud that our Alaskan seafood fishery has been designated an organic fishery and that it is a well-managed sustainable fishery. We are confident that Alaskan seafood will be feeding the world for generations to come. I love to learn about coastal cuisine at Tutka Bay Lodge. We are using seaweeds in many different ways, and we are making our own sea salt. Each morning, we forage for wild edibles that go into our daily salad, and we catch fish right off of our dock. Lastly, we live in a beautiful, deep, seven-mile fjord that can provide me with a lifetime of learning and contemplative reflection.