In the kitchen with…
Chef Christopher Vane
Wine Bistro & Cellar
Story By Mara Severin • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna
Christopher Vane, executive chef of Crush Wine Bistro and Cellar, discovered his love for cooking at a tender age. "I was the one – not my sister – who got the Easy Bake oven," he recalls with a laugh. His first unsupervised efforts were breakfasts cooked on an electric wok and served to his parents in bed. "My mother says I always gravitated toward the kitchen."
That gravity has never lost its pull. Christopher took his first restaurant job at the age of 16. He began as a dishwasher and moved up from there. "It's where I learned the work ethic of the kitchen," he says. As a young cook in Charlotte, NC, he developed a working friendship with chef and restaurateur Tobin McAfee. It was McAfee who convinced Christopher that his cooking skills amounted to a gift. "He told me that I had the thought processes of a chef," he recalls. "I see the ingredients first and say, 'What can this become?' "
Christopher's gift has taken him on a remarkable journey – both literal and culinary. A sense of adventure and a skill set that travels well has taken him around the country and to some far-reaching spots on the globe. He has cooked contemporary cuisine in Colorado, "Floribbean" cuisine in Florida, and helped open a brand-new restaurant in Seattle. He's traveled to Taiwan to teach English and explore the food culture. And, he spent nine months as a personal chef aboard a 100-foot yacht, cooking for a couple and their guests as they sailed Alaska's Inside Passage, the Caribbean, and points in-between. "It was an education," he says, of his months on the yacht. "I got to experience cooking without an eye to budget. I got to try different ingredients – the most amazing wines and caviar – and consider only whether my boss enjoyed the meal."
For a man with an explorer's heart, the life of a chef is ideal, he says. "Cooking made it all possible. A number of times, I've been able to get on an airplane and start from scratch."
A unique connection to Alaska has been threaded throughout Christopher's eclectic career. An early stint cooking in a military tent at a sports-fishing camp and a spell as a cook at a remote lodge in Iliamna, planted the seeds that call so many people back. "I thought it might be an interesting place to break into the food scene," he says of his relatively recent return to the state. After time spent cooking at the Motherlode Lodge in Hatcher Pass, and a period of working on the slope, Christopher found himself back in Anchorage.
Christopher began spending time in Crush, first as a patron and then as a lunchtime sandwich chef. Soon, he found himself "playing more of a leadership role in the kitchen," and in May of 2010 he was asked to take on the position of executive chef.
Christopher's cooking philosophy is very simple. "I think you should thrive on what's around you" he says. "I try to get the freshest, nicest, local ingredients. I'd rather have a relationship with local businesses and farmers rather than the Fed Ex guy." And that's not just talk. This year Christopher has raised his own Thanksgiving turkey from a hatchling. And you can't get more local than that.
But if his philosophy is straightforward it's also ephemeral. "I don't tend to write anything down," he says. Ultimately, he says, the process is fluid and organic.
Christopher's dishes are sophisticated and nuanced, but there is often an element of surprise. "I love to work with whole spices," he says, for example. "But I like to use them in a way that alters people's perceptions about the flavors. I don't want them to be a sock in the face," he says. "I want them to make you think. I want to add an element of intrigue to the food."
Adding to the intrigue is the bistro's emphasis on wine and food pairings. Cooking for the oenophiles who frequent Crush brings with it some culinary challenges, says Christopher. "I love chilies and spicy foods but they're not always a friend to wines," he says. But ultimately, the menu is a collaboration with the resident wine experts. "They always reassure me saying 'You cook the food and we'll find the wines to go with it.' " Sometimes they will try five or six, even eight wines to find the right pairings. "It's fun for them and it's fun to watch."
Christopher's talents have not gone unnoticed by Alaskans or the culinary world at large. In 2011 he was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as a semifinalist in the category of Best Chef Pacific Northwest. "At first I thought it was a joke," says Christopher, when he first heard murmurs about the nomination.
"It's nice to have the recognition and the credibility," he says, but for Christopher, it's all about the food. "Cooking is not a destination," he says. "It's a journey."