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Food Frontier

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Chef Rob Kinneen is on a mission to give Alaskan cuisine global prominence.
By Amelia Levin August 2014 Chef Profiles

There’s something mysterious about Alaska. Maybe it’s the image of snowcapped mountains and vast, unpopulated territories. But, when it comes to Alaskan food, there’s so much more than just legends of whale blubber and seal meat.

In an age for taking everything local, Alaskan chef Rob Kinneen has made it his mission to educate the world about what people really eat in his native state.

He shares this information through local food dishes at Crush Wine Bistro & Cellar in Anchorage, where he works as the executive chef, and on Fresh49.com (a nod to Alaska’s status as the 49th state).

The website, which is devoted to Alaskan food and cuisine, was started by Chef Kinneen and his wife, Carolyn, three years ago.

“The food circle in Alaska is broken,” says Kinneen, pointing to costly shipping conditions and the export of prized seafood. “We’re trying to bring light to what’s available here and now,” he explains, hoping to change the perceptions of the past 50 years, which he says “valued convenience in the form of frozen chicken and canned food.”

Truth is, Alaska boasts a foraging culture that’s unparalleled in the U.S. From beer made with Alaskan barley to the rare berries found in Fairbanks, Alaska is flush with unique delicacies that go far beyond the Dungeness crab and wild salmon that most people associate with the state. There’s much to be celebrated in Alaska’s indigenous food selections: wild asparagus from the southeastern beaches, iodine-rich bladderwrack seaweed, and medicinal tea made from devil’s club, a protected relative of ginseng.

“To me, these foraged foods are more representative of the food culture in Alaska,” says Chef Kinneen, who not only works with local foragers and forages a bit himself, but also buys direct from farms and regularly shops at the Anchorage farmers’ market for carrots, beets, and more during the state’s short warm season.

“On a good year, farmed produce is ready in mid-June and lasts through September,” he says. He gets through the long, barren winter with hearty produce grown in bulk by a farmer who uses cellar storage, along with micro greens, sprouts, and tofu produced in greenhouses. Come April, foraging season begins.

Born in the small fishing town of Petersburg in the southeastern part of the state, and raised in Anchorage, Kinneen is of Tlingit heritage, indigenous to Alaska and considered to be the original hunter-gatherers of the area. The Tlingit and Haida Indian tribes of Alaska make up a sovereign tribal government representing 29,000 people worldwide.

“I grew up eating things like herring roe, which you can find in early April in Sitka,” says Chef Kinneen. “My uncles would put out hemlock, and the herring would come and spawn. We would eat the fish and roe smoked, or freeze it.”

Now, Kinneen buys Alaskan Gold caviar from a husband and wife duo, and uses the delicacy for toppings on salads or deviled eggs. He once made a wedge salad using the roe with pickled bull kelp and a Binga tree root dressing, flavored with soy sauce and citrus. Sometimes, he recreates the fish-head soup that he grew up eating, and once, he served moose meat on top of mac and cheese.

“I try to take traditional foods from this area and make it more upscale and more approachable,” says Chef Kinneen. “I would never serve a bunch of boiled seal fat, which is still eaten in parts of remote Alaska.” Rather, he views modern Alaskan cuisine as a convergence of the state’s indigenous cultures with global influences from newcomers to the area.

Chef Kinneen always had a fascination with food and cooking, and has been working in restaurants since age 14. He earned a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and then worked for various upscale restaurants, including NOLA in New Orleans as well as the former Magnolia Grill in Durham, North Carolina, and Elaine’s on Franklin in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where his love of cooking with local foods grew. In Anchorage, he clocked time as a chef at Seven Glaciers, Noble’s Diner, the Crow’s Nest, and Orso.

At his five-year-old restaurant Crush, which seats 45, Chef Kinneen says he goes through “a pig a month,” and buys directly from local foragers and farmers. “They are raised naturally in Alaska,” he explains, adding that he finishes off the pork with Alaskan-raised barley. He peppers his menu with other boutique ingredients—like Alaskan pure sea salt made from the Pacific Ocean, sometimes smoked with spruce tips and wild blueberries.

“I like to use things that you’re never going to see in other parts of the country, things that are uniquely Alaskan,” he says. Customers rave about the subtly sweet birch syrup creme brulée, the sautéed spot prawns, Alaskan barley polenta, and Alaskan coffee-rubbed pork chops.

Chef Kinneen also takes regular trips to rural parts of the state for research and philanthropic endeavors. A recent trip to the remote fishing village of Iliamna led to cooking ventures that use porcupine and smoked salmon collars. He’s heading back this month to assist with a foraging camp in the collection of native Alaskan berries, mushrooms, and more. Last year, he helped a village with just 200 people build a community garden, and he’s also helped an oyster farming community broaden its distribution to generate more revenue.

The long, treacherous winters, vast geographic area of the state, and minimally developed infrastructure combine to make imports and even regional distribution challenging. Most food products from outside the state must come via airplane to the big cities of Juneau, Fairbanks, or Anchorage, then travel to remote villages and towns via trucks and barges—all of which contribute to high shipping costs.

While foodservice customers have historically carried the brunt of shipping costs out of necessity to get what they needed, many are now turning to what’s available in their own state, such as seafood delicacies that typically have been exported to high-end restaurants.

“Alaska has a $2 billion annual budget for food, and 96 percent of it comes from out-of-state goods,” says Chef Kinneen.

To change that, he is working on a cookbook commissioned by the state of Alaska, with stories and recipes intended to encourage farm-to-table and fishery-to-table cooking—especially in schools, as an alternative to bland, re-warmed frozen foods.

Comparing it to the popularity of New Nordic Cuisine, which has taken off around the world, Chef Kinneen hopes to see Alaskan cuisine gain similar recognition. “We have elements of Nordic cuisine up here,” he says, pointing to the strong foraging and fishing culture that suggests elements of both health and sustainability. “If we capture that, we could create a world-renowned market. People go to Sweden now for this type of food, but what if they came to Alaska instead?”

Rather than simply a rhetorical query, perhaps that’s a realistic possibility for the near future.