In the kitchen with...
Chef Kevin Lane of Chinook's Restaurant
Story by Jamey Bradbury
Photography by One Shot Photography
Chef Kevin Lane has some words of advice when it comes to Alaska seafood: “When you have something that’s really good, don’t hide it.”
This philosophy has served Lane well in his 11 years as executive chef at Chinook’s waterfront restaurant in Seward, where he enjoys the freshness of local fish, from strong, fatty salmon, to lighter, delicate cod. “The variety,” he says, “is part of what makes it fun to be a chef here in Alaska.”
As a native of California, Lane experienced agriculture shock when he moved to Juneau in 1995. His former culinary school instructor had invited him to work as the sous chef at the Baranoff Hotel. “Coming from the Sacramento Valley, where 90 percent of agriculture happens in California,” Lane recalls, “you’d call up the herb lady and get 10 pounds of fresh basil delivered to your back door in 15 minutes. Moving to Juneau, you’d call in your order, and 7 to 10 days later it shows up on the barge – you hope. That was an eye-opener.”
But the trade-off, he discovered, was worth it for the quality of Alaska seafood. He’d developed a love of good seafood in college when, looking for a way to pay rent, he snagged a job at a San Diego restaurant called The Fish Market.
“I grew up in a meat and potatoes family,” he describes. “We never ate a lot of seafood.” At The Fish Market, he learned to prepare finfish on a mesquite grill, then serve it with lemon and butter – nothing more. “That way of cooking relies heavily on the quality of the product. I loved that, and it still inspires my cooking.”
“Of course,” he adds, “the supporting cast on the plate has to be really well prepared, also.” Today, Lane takes advantage of the bounty of root vegetables, from rich beets to hearty potatoes, available from the Valley throughout the fall and winter. “I enjoy the changing of the seasons,” he says. “Anything that’s coming in fresh – just about the time you’re getting bored, the seasons change and there’s a new inspiration coming out.”
Inspiration this past summer came in the form of black kale, which Lane says he fell in love with. To showcase it, he devised a “simple, hearty dish that also showed off Kodiak scallops,” and created one of Chinook Waterfront’s bestsellers: smoked scallop mac and cheese. It was a huge hit: “I’m sure someone would burn down the restaurant if we ever took it off the menu.”
If you try your hand at his recipe (featured on the next page), Lane suggests bringing the kids into the kitchen to help. “It’s really important to get them interested in cooking at an early age, in what’s going onto their plate and into their bodies. My best advice is to experiment and have fun.”
As a former instructor at the Alaska Culinary Institute, Lane has 10 years’ experience teaching young people to appreciate good food. During that time, he stumbled into the world of competition cooking before reality television made it cool: He took Alaska’s first student team to the American Culinary Federation’s regional cooking competition in Hawaii.
Lane stepped into the limelight himself in 2013 when he competed in the Great Alaskan Seafood Challenge, coming in first with a sourdough-crusted sablefish with smoked salmon au jus, roasted mushrooms on a basil coulis and tempura-fried sea bean. The win was a bit of redemption – he came in second in the previous year’s competition – and it gave him an opportunity to travel to New Orleans to compete on the national level.
“It was a real feather in my chef’s cap,” Lane says, adding that the New Orleans venue “was a chef’s environment, where people were passionate about seafood.”
But competing can’t take the place of cooking in a restaurant kitchen, insists Lane. “Seeing that satisfaction in the customers’ faces when you give them a great plate of food – that’s when you know you’ve really accomplished something.”