In the kitchen with…
Chef Travis Haugen
of Southside Bistro
Story By Mara Severin • Photography by Aaron A. Weaver
Disarming bombs. Running a busy restaurant kitchen. You might not think that these two things have much in common. But Travis Haugen, Chef de Cuisine of Southside Bistro, does. And he would know. Before beginning his culinary career, Haugen was in the military as a me mber of the bomb squad. And he's only half-joking when he says the two professions aren't that different. "I went from disarming bombs to cooking," he says, "and that's not that big of a leap. They're both high-stress and high-pressure jobs."
Moving north then moving up
Haugen, it seems, can stand more than one kind of heat. After the military, he attended the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Minneapolis and worked in some of the city's best restaurants where he began to shape his culinary style. After graduating at the top of his class he set his sights further afield. "I wanted to live in a mountain state," he says. So after applying for positions from New Mexico to Alaska, he accepted a job with the Alyeska Resort and began his northern career as a line cook. Four years ago, he took a job as lunch chef at Southside Bistro and began to work his way up the kitchen ladder. "It's hard work," he says, of life at the head of the kitchen. "And definitely not glamorous."
The integrity of ingredients
The restaurant's simple motto, "Fresh Fun Food" allows Haugen a lot of creative freedom. "We don't want to label ourselves," he says, when asked to describe the restaurant's cuisine.
The menu is varied and eclectic. Pacific Rim flavors like Thai-influenced curries share menu space with dishes that reflect the owner's Scandinavian roots. Traditional dishes like Coq au Vin and Beef Bourguignon get a respectful update. "I'm not afraid to use the classics," he says, "though I might introduce a new element." A recent interpretation of osso bucco using wild boar shanks instead of lamb was a success. "I had never used boar before," he says, "and people loved it."
Alaskan seafood, of course, is always a highlight. "We buy fresh local seafood," he says. The restaurant never buys frozen fish and if the product is not fresh, it's simply not served. "I'm not going to buy a substandard product just because it's available," he says.
And while cooking is a thoroughly creative outlet for Haugen, he doesn't appreciate culinary thearics. "I don't feel like I need to combine white chocolate and tarragon" just to be daring, he says. "Certain flavors work together for a reason."
Love your food – don't try to change it
It's a challenge creating five special menu items five days a week, but Haugen lets the seasons guide him. "I love doing braised dishes in the wintertime," he says. When the temperatures drop, he says, "People want comfort food." His years in a "hard-core" Tuscan restaurant in Minneapolis shaped his style and perfected his slow-cooking techniques. "We made braised veal cheeks, braised beef cheeks, and slow-cooked tuna," he recalls.
In the summertime, he highlights fresh local produce. "I like to go to the market and just see what the farmers have," he says. He might highlight tomatoes with a simple salad, he says. Or, "if they have zucchini blossoms, then that's what I'll work with," he says.
The bottom line is that a meal is only as good as the ingredients in it, he says. When asked about his favorite meal at home, he says. "I'm not embarrassed to say that I love a dinner of cheese, good sausage, a nice crusty baguette, butter and sea-salt – a really simple meal," he says. "As long as all the ingredients are good, don't get in the way of them," he advises. "Enjoy them for what they're meant to be."