In the kitchen with…
Chef Luke Doherty
Sack's Cafe & Restaurant
Story by Michelle Theriault • Photography by Aaron Weaver
Luke Doherty has a dozen ducks, an idea and the afternoon. Part of the fun of being chef de cuisine at Sacks Café & Restaurant in Anchorage is walking into work with a seed of a plan – wine-braised duck served with a creamy, corn-enriched polenta – and working out the details in the kitchen.
"I think about food all the time," he says.
The earnest 23-year-old is a man whose life is consumed, quite happily, by food. It's been that way for a long time. Doherty, who grew up in Anchorage, remembers the first time he donned a white chef's coat – for an elementary school presentation on nutrition. He remembers feeling like he never wanted to take it off. From there he became a 10-year-old who spent Saturdays making soufflés. As a teenager, Doherty found his way into the kitchen of Sacks, a downtown Anchorage bistro known for its eclectic, ever-changing menu and locally sourced ingredients. There, he was the orange juicer and potato dicer for the weekend brunch rush.
"It was the kind of stuff you trust to the new guy," he says.
The kitchen felt like home, and Doherty was sure he'd found his vocation. After high school, Doherty spent 11 months learning kitchen fundamentals at Western Culinary Institute in the foodie Mecca of Portland, Ore. He later trained at French bistro-style restaurants in San Antonio, Texas and Chicago.
Doherty returned to Alaska with deep-seated love for what he calls "honest" food and a new reverence for ingredients like the humble fava bean. "Food can have a lot of integrity," he says. "It's really important to me to have that in my food."
His personal culinary style is simple, French-influenced cuisine that places the emphasis on high-quality ingredients and vibrant flavors – and isn't afraid to add an unexpected sprig of candied fennel or a bit of tobiko and orange zest to a dish here and there.
Sacks' menu changes on a daily basis, which allows Doherty the freedom to build dishes around seasonal, fresh ingredients like fresh seafood or produce. He favors an approach that blends local ingredients like "beautiful" morel mushrooms, salmon and potatoes out of the Mat-Su Valley with imported favorites like dry-cured Spanish ham. "I really have a hard time finding many dishes you can't work ham into," he says. Other go-to ingredients include truffle oil ("an enormous aroma that can really hold a dish together"), arugula ("an assertive, peppery flavor") and judiciously used Parmesan cheese and butter. Some of his favorite meals are deceptively simple – like an arugula salad that features warm Brie cheese, earthy sautéed oyster mushrooms, shaved hazelnuts and sherry herb vinaigrette.
At home in the kitchen
You don't have to work in a kitchen to cook like a chef, Doherty says. Even the most ardent recipe-followers can create their own dishes from scratch by following a few principles. "Each dish should have a focal point that catches peoples' attention," he says. "Otherwise you just have a bunch of ingredients on a plate."
Doherty likes to follow the "rule of threes": build a dish by focusing on three flavors, three colors and three textures. "It keeps you from overcomplicating things," he says.
Outside of work, Doherty thinks about…food. He keeps a dog-eared copy of The French Laundry cookbook, based on Thomas Keller's Napa restaurant, close at hand. "It's really old ideas in sort of a modern application," he says. And he recently visited Chicago expressly to eat at pioneering haute molecular gastronomy restaurant Alinea, where you can choose from a 14- or 27-course menu. His dessert was something that involved "essence of hay," caramel and a "pillow of nutmeg air." Not exactly rustic French cooking, but he loved it.
"Food can be entertainment too," he says with a smile.
In the future, Doherty can see himself opening a restaurant in Alaska or teaching. But for now, he's just happy to be at home in the kitchen and at a job he loves showing up to each day. And now, it's time to get to work; he has 12 ducks, an afternoon, and dinner to put on the table.