In the kitchen with…
Jack Sprat Restaurant
Story by Mara Severin • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna
One of Chris Rattaro's earliest food memories is a scent; the aroma of his grandmother's slow-cooked roast beef. "She would use a rump roast – not an expensive piece of meat, nothing special," he recalls. "She would put garlic and rosemary in the middle and coat the whole thing in salt. That smell is one of the best memories I have."
His grandmother, a French-Canadian, was already a talented cook when she married and began to learn the secrets of Italian cooking from her mother-in-law. "She's an inspiration to me," says Chris. "She put a lot of love and time into her food."
Growing up around inspired cooking led Chris into the kitchen at a very young age. "I cooked for my family all the time. There were five us, and my mom was a single mother, so that was a way that I could help out." By the time he was 12, Chris recalls, his culinary aspirations were set in stone. "I knew exactly what I wanted to do."
After high-school, Chris enrolled in a culinary program and began working his way up the ladder within San Francisco's restaurant scene: from making salads at a casual-dining grill to becoming sous chef at the acclaimed French, fine-dining restaurant, Masas. "It's all about fine dining when you start your career," says Chris. "That's your goal."
The restaurant's executive chef, Gregory Short, was an alumnus of Thomas Keller's legendary French Laundry restaurant. Short recommended Chris to his previous employers and helped him secure a position in one of the most renowned kitchens in the world – first as a commis chef and then as a chef de partie.
After years of making his culinary mark in the decidedly competitive world of California cuisine, Chris found himself looking for something new. "I was ready to have some new adventures," he says. A life-long fascination with Alaska had him looking north for inspiration. "I considered getting a job fishing," says Chris. "Growing up, I've always had a fascination for the ocean and a love for fish. I love fishing for them, cooking them and keeping them (in saltwater tanks)," he says.
Instead, Chris found a summer job cooking at the remote Winterlake Lodge on the Iditarod Trail. During his seasonal stint, he fell in love with the state and was determined to come back. An opening at Jack Sprat's came to his attention and his fate was sealed. "I packed up all my stuff in California and moved up here." He started work in January 2011, and became the restaurant's Chef de Cuisine in February 2012. "It's a cool community," says Chris, of his new hometown of Girdwood. "The people are so free-spirited. And you know half of the people you drive by," he says with a laugh. "It's kind of unreal after living in the bay area."
Today, Chris' cooking is casual and fun, perfect for the playground that is Girdwood. "I like people to feel comfortable when they're eating my food," he says. And his experience with fine dining plays a part in the seasonal, modern and eclectic menu at the restaurant. "With fine dining you learn refined technique and you get to work with the best of everything" – and this can all be applied to upscale bistro-style food, he says.
Chris' culinary by-words are quality and simplicity. "The key to good cooking is to get the best ingredients you can possibly source. That's the bottom line," he says. "When you have the best ingredients, they speak for themselves."
And Alaskans have access to some of the best product in the world, he says. "Everybody knows that Alaska has the best salmon and halibut," says Chris, "even if they don't know much about fish." But, he adds, "until I moved here I didn't know about Alaska spot prawns, and Alaska scallops and Alaska oysters. They were new to me." Chris points out that it's not always what is harvested from the sea – but where – that determines the quality. "The shrimp are the same species we get in California," he says. "But they're sweeter because the water is colder. We've been getting our spot prawns right out of Whittier. They're amazing. They blew me away. They're simply a better product." And when he answers the age-old question that every chef gets asked – "What would you eat for your last meal on earth?" – he doesn't skip a beat: "I'd want a huge plate of Alaska king crab legs with some butter and lemon and some rice and kim chi. I love Alaska king crab. I'd take it over lobster any day of the week."
From a childhood spent making homemade meals for his family, to doing humble kitchen prep-work as a young chef, to tackling the meticulous challenges of a world-class kitchen, Chris Rattaro has stayed true to a very simple philosophy – and it's good advice for anyone in any field: "Do something that you like. Do it well. Keep working on it and keep making it better."