In the kitchen with…
Chef Jens Hansen of Jens' Restaurant
Story by Michelle Theriault
Photography by Danny Daniels Photography
He has been described as "zany," "wild" and "enchanting." His food has been called "innovative" and the "best kept secret in Anchorage." Jens (pronounced "yens") Hansen has been cooking professionally for 50 years now, and more than 40 of them have been spent here in Alaska.
He was born – "with a smile," he says – in Copenhagen, Denmark. Food was always on his mind, and by 16 he was apprenticing in the kitchen of the Hotel Terminus, one of the country's finest. After that it was off to France, where he worked and studied the techniques of classical French cooking. It was a difficult baptism into an elite world of chefs – some resented him for being so young. But it paid off. After a brief stint in the Danish Army (he was quickly steered into the kitchen), he was offered, at age 24, a position as sous chef at the newly opened Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage. He moved to Alaska in 1969. It was a long way from the kitchens of Europe to pre-pipeline Anchorage. At the time, fresh produce was rare. Potatoes and cabbage were readily available, but most anything else (including fresh meat) had to be flown in from Seattle, and was available only intermittently. "The conditions for making good food were hard," he says.
Thankfully, things have changed. In the intervening decades, Anchorage grew up, and the young Danish chef did too. After a decade building his name at the Crow's Nest, he took a wild year off to work on the pipeline. "It was the most insane thing I've ever seen," he says. By 1988, he had opened Jens' Restaurant, tucked into a midtown strip mall. While the view from the parking lot may be unassuming, the inside is cozy, with red walls and surrealist paintings. Jens holds court in the kitchen, where inventive dishes – like pan-seared Kodiak scallops over a saffron pernod cream sauce with an arugula and fiddlehead fern salad – are born. With his full-throated laugh and the occasional glass of wine in his hand, it's clear that Jens is in his element. His culinary style remains rooted in his formative experiences in French kitchens. Of the utmost importance: fresh, seasonal ingredients. He's not afraid to nix a popular fish from the menu when none is available fresh. Alaska's bounty is his inspiration, and he's known for being a wizard with fish – beyond Alaskan standards like salmon and halibut. "I take seafood very seriously, especially being Danish," he says. Hints of his upbringing show up on the menu in the form of gravid laks, a Scandinavian dish of dill-cured salmon. While his classical French training is the foundation of the menu, dishes like "sashimi napoleon with crispy wontons, Ahi tuna and smoked salmon" reflect an appreciation for Asian techniques developed over years of living on the Pacific Rim.
And there's his signature dish, the "by now almost world famous" pepper steak, which he first prepared in Copenhagen: a cut of the best beef tenderloin with crushed tellicherry peppers in a sauce of Aquavit, cream and green Madagascar peppercorns. "See you in heaven," is how Jens describes it.
The art of cooking is really about using the finest ingredients you can find and afford, Jens says. Correct technique is essential too, he says. You can't pan-sear scallops to perfection if you don't really know what pan searing is.
He travels yearly, picking up new tastes and inspirations from around the world, but Alaska is home. "I'm proud to be in Anchorage," he says. "I love it. I love the symphony, I love the opera." Jens welcomes in visitors from his adopted hometown, as well as tourists from far-flung places who've read a glowing review of his restaurant in a guidebook. In all of it – the calamari piccata, the cumin-dusted roast rack of lamb with chipotle-raspberry sauce, the pacific cod on a maitake mushroom ragout – you can taste Jens' culinary sense of adventure.