In the kitchen with...
Chef Robert Lewis Maxine’s Fireweed Bistro
Story by Laurie Constantino • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna
Robert Lewis, chef-owner of Maxine’s Fireweed Bistro, makes imaginative, mouth-watering food at his new Anchorage restaurant. Before Robert relocated it to Anchorage, Maxine’s was one of Girdwood’s best eateries. His attention to detail shows in every dish on the menu. Everything is made in house, including breads and desserts.
Creativity runs in Robert’s family. He grew up in Ein-hod, an artist’s colony in Israel with his poet father and painter mother. He left Israel after his parents separated; his mother moved to Anchorage and his father died while Robert was visiting Alaska. Moving to Alaska at age 14 was difficult; Robert missed his dad, friends at school and life in Israel. When he started West High, Robert spoke and understood English, but wrote and read only Hebrew.
After graduation, Robert joined the Israeli army. He returned to Alaska once his military service was over and slogged through dead-end, uninspiring jobs. Robert’s life changed the day he visited Pike Place Market in Seattle: “It was a very cloudy day, but then the sun broke through. Into my mind flashed the thought: ‘How great it would be if I were in Italy cooking.’ At that instant, I knew I’d be a chef.”
After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Robert began his journey as a professional chef in Anchorage, cooking at Gesine’s, Snow Goose, D Street Café and Bernie’s Bungalow. “I worked in a lot of places where I had to figure out how to do the job on my own,” he says. During this time, he met and married Kristine, a fellow chef.
When Kristine decided to attend cooking school in Vermont, Robert went with her. He worked as a chef in a small restaurant. “That’s really when I went up a notch and became good at what I do; not from school,” he says.
Robert recalls his most memorable cooking experience while in Vermont: “I cooked 27 hours straight. I came to work on Saturday and worked a busy dinner shift. At shift’s end, the owner told me to come in at 4 am the next day to prep for Mother’s Day brunch. He didn’t have a menu plan. If I started at 4, there was no way I could create a menu and get all the prep work done. I stayed, worked all night and through the entire brunch service. The menu was amazing; it was all original and composed perfectly.” On that day, Robert knew he’d succeeded in becoming a chef.
Alaska ingredients inspire Robert. He particularly enjoys creating new dishes with local seafood and vegetables. “(Last) summer, all our produce came fresh from the Valley. It was amazing. I wish I could get it year round,” says Robert. “My supplier is Kent Larson, a farmer who brings me produce at its peak on Mondays and Thursdays. (Last) year Kent grew 160 varieties.”
Robert personally shops for his restaurant; it motivates and inspires him. “I always make time for shopping. I see the quality of ingredients sold by each store and notice everything new and interesting.”
For the home cook, Robert shares some advice: Learn how to salt and season food properly. “People are afraid of putting on too much seasoning, but shouldn’t be afraid to use a heavy hand. I like people to taste what they eat. The flavors have to be big, whatever I do.” He also suggests cooking slowly rather than rushing. “Instead of high heat, turn the burner to medium or low. Slow cooking puts more complex layers in food.”
Robert’s passion for food and cooking is his way of communicating. “I don’t like to talk much. Eating my food is a way for people to get to know me. I try and put myself in everything that comes out of the kitchen. Everyone wants to love and be loved. That’s my language. That’s what I care about.”