In the kitchen with…
Chef Rob Kinneen of Fresh49.com
Story By Mara Severin • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna
Chef Rob Kinneen has one message for Alaskan cooks: “Be yourselves.”
“I want to help Alaskans form their regional food identity,” he says. “We shouldn’t try to re-create the food culture of somewhere else. We should value our own traditions.”
Born in Petersburg, Alaska, and of Tlingit heritage, Rob understands, better than most, the importance of preserving the use of traditional Alaskan foods. “I remember seeing rows of venison aging,” he says. “I remember being on a boat and seeing halibut the size of my Dad coming up out of the water. Things like that have always stayed with me.”
And, as a veteran of some of the best restaurants in the state (by way of the Culinary Institute of America) – including Sacks Café, Seven Glaciers, The Crow’s Nest, Noble’s Diner and Orso – he has developed a reputation for using only the freshest products available, locally sourced. And he thinks this culinary commitment should be in everyone’s grasp.
To that end, Chef Rob, with his wife Carolyn, recently formed Fresh49, a company that – among other things – celebrates the origins of and uses for traditional Alaskan foods. Last year they created a series of 16 webisodes that explore different parts of Alaska, the ingredients found in that region, and – most importantly – practical and delicious ways to use them. They’re currently making a new series of videos.
“The whole mission is to pay attention to what’s around,” says Rob, “to use what’s already here.” Beach greens, berries and spruce tips are all ingredients that he uses with as much confidence as a store-bought head of lettuce.
For Rob, the word “traditional” is just a jumping off point. “I like using traditional ingredients in a more contemporary way,” he says. For example, a Sitka-based webisode shows him catching a spiny rockfish. He prepares the fish with foraged yarrow and wild parsley and then drizzles it with seal oil – also sourced in Sitka. “I used the oil like it was extra-virgin olive oil,” he says. “I was taking a regional ingredient and making it more pertinent.”
Chef Rob has always been fascinated by the evolution of cuisine – the process by which a climate and a culture affects the regional cooking. “A panzanella salad,” he explains, for example, “is what a poor person makes who has a left-over piece of stale bread and an olive garden.” He has an even more intimate relationship with Cajun food – having cooked at NOLA – one of Emeril Lagasse’s New Orleans restaurants. “Creole food is unique and adventurous,” he says. “But part of the smokiness and the spice is to offset the gaminess of the food that occurs in a warm climate with a lack of refrigeration,” he says. “Understanding the origins of these techniques is fascinating.”
Which brings us back to traditional Alaskan foods. “Alaskans have lived in Barrow and the Southeast and the Aleutians for thousands of years,” he says. They’ve thrived in part due to their foods which are high in nutrients and high in good-for-you fats,” he says. “If you can make it there, that’s really inspiring. I’m inspired by the Native people’s resilience.”
Awareness, he says, can have a far-reaching effect. “Outside of personal consumption,” he says, “there’s no supply infrastructure for indigenous food.” He wants to change all that. His plan is to promote Alaska’s food infrastructure in three ways: first, by raising awareness of traditional foods and their importance to our culture; second, by encouraging and promoting local farming, and production of value-added products; and third, by using technology to enhance food culture. “The first step is to create a supply chain,” he says. “If that happens, then rural parts of the state can create an economy that benefits rural Alaskans,” he says. “And that would be so exciting.”
In addition to creating awareness-building videos and participating in events that celebrate Alaska’s diverse bounty (including the recent Sitka Seafood Festival where Rob was a guest chef), Fresh49 is developing a series of locally sourced sauces which will be bottled and available soon. Flavors like alder-smoked mustard vinaigrette, Alaskan lager cocktail sauce, and onion-smoked mustard beer spread, the line is designed to go perfectly with other local Alaskan products.
With a new video series, a new product line, and hints of a new restaurant in the New Year, it seems clear that for Chef Rob, tradition is just as much about the future as it is about the past. As a loyal promoter of the state’s seafood, produce and local food products, Chef Rob is a true ambassador of Alaskan cuisine.