In the kitchen with…
Chef Liz Madsen of Crow's Nest
Story By Sarah Gonzales • Photography by Photo Arts by Janna
Most culinary sorts would agree that there are usually two types of personalities at work in a kitchen. The pastry chef personality is precise, measuring every last ingredient down to the slightest ounce because baking is a science; while the savory chef personality is experimental, adding a dash of this and a pinch of that because cooking is an art.
Liz Madsen, sous chef at the Crow's Nest in the Hotel Captain Cook, proves the complication to this unofficial rule because she could easily be a third type. Trained in both savory and sweet methods, she's spent years as a pastry chef and is now artfully – yet precisely – preparing the pre-dessert courses 20 stories above Anchorage. "I use my pastry skills and put them to savory applications," she says.
Her version of "streusel" is made savory with Parmesan instead of sugar, and she accompanies a seared foie gras appetizer with handmade chocolate marshmallows, all beautifully plated like a decadent dessert. She explains that pastry chefs are "much more particular as far as being exact (with measurements) and how things look."
Madsen left a pre-medicine program at Boston University to move to Arizona where she learned to make bread, and in doing so, discovered her life's passion. "It came naturally to me," she recalls. Baking, she found, had all the exactness and challenge she craved in a career with none of the life and death direness. "I love art, chemistry, science, math and that's what pastry is about," she says, adding, "plus, it's not saving lives."
It was at the Western Culinary Academy in Portland, Oregon where Madsen completed the full Le Cordon Bleu program learning both sweet and savory skills because she "wanted to be able to do anything." Right around the time she was graduating, hungry to get to work in big city hotel kitchens, the events of September 11, 2001 caused the travel and tourism industry to hit an all time low, making her post-graduation plan of interning at the Four Seasons Seattle an impossibility.
Not one to be deterred, Madsen returned to Alaska and did her internship at the Alyeska Resort. "Alaska was home, there was a place to stay in Girdwood and it was a lot easier than going somewhere unknown," she says. She finished her internship here and eventually returned as the executive pastry chef a few years later after working for a short time at the four-star AQUA in San Francisco.
Madsen's roots in Alaska go deep, and maybe that's why she keeps coming back. She grew up on Kodiak Island, the great-great granddaughter of an Alaska Native-Russian woman and a Danish bear expedition guide. Like most Alaskan families, hers regularly ate the fresh seafood and wild game that are considered rare delicacies in most of the United States. Her dad was a diesel mechanic who worked on fishing vessel engines and this kept the family's yard "crawling with crab," she remembers. Her family ate home-cooked dinners together, the kind of sit-down meals of the "no labels on the table" sort – every condiment in a serving dish. Despite this proper – and delicious – culinary upbringing, she says, "I always joked that I'd grow up and marry a chef so I wouldn't have to cook."
These days it's hard to imagine Madsen not wanting to cook. When baking and decorating elaborate wedding or birthday cakes, her off-work activity. She appreciates how cake plays a central and important role in big life events and that's why she applies such scientific precision to her art form. A unique cake personifies and celebrates, she says, and with cake "every person can feel really special."
Currently Madsen is planning spring menus at work, while at home she is sharing her love of cooking and baking with her 5-year-old son who is quickly becoming her sous chef. He has his own little knife and even "knows the difference between buttercream and fondant," she says with a laugh. Of course he knows. He's receiving a thorough culinary education right at home, taught by a loving mommy, also known as one of Anchorage's top chefs.