In the kitchen with…

Chef Brad Harris of MUSE

Story by Amy Armstrong

Photography by Latonia Gaston

He is professionally trained in traditional French cooking and specializes in creating upscale Italian cuisine. But, that didn’t stop Brad Harris, executive chef at MUSE at the Anchorage Museum, from creating an opulent version of the “burger and fries” entrée – an American favorite sure to please locals and the tourist crowd.

Noting that the Anchorage Museum is on the “to-do” list for folks visiting Anchorage, Brad wanted to capitalize on what was already one of MUSE’s best sellers.

“Americans on vacation tend to gravitate to fish and chips or burgers and fries,” he unashamedly says. “So I took our strongest seller and figured out a way to make it more homegrown and give it a boost.”

Brad’s version of the typical hamburger is anything but “typical.”

He decided a combination of 75 percent fresh ground brisket and 25 percent fresh ground shoulder was in order. The brisket meat – known for its lean qualities – combined with shoulder meat – appreciated by cooks and diners for its flavor-enhancing fat content – is fresh ground in MUSE’s on-premise kitchen. Brad adds homemade ketchup and hand-cut fries for a yummy merger of Alaskan-grown products that elevated diners’ expectation of a restaurant staple.

“People really notice a big difference with the fresh ground burger versus the patty out of the box,” he says.

Now 17 years into his professional cooking career, Brad has been at MUSE since May 2016. One of his first public experiences with the museum-based restaurant had an Alaskan flare -- and flame, that is from a simple camp stove fueled by a portable butane burner. In July 2016, Brad and Heather Kelly, owner of Heather’s Choice Meals of Anchorage, participated in an “Iron Chef” style cook-off outside the museum in an effort to demonstrate that camp cooking can be much more than hot dogs and s’mores. Heather’s creation was deviled eggs with green beans, rice and salmon. Brad made a dish of sausage, shrimp and strawberries with a honey drizzle.

Brad, and his wife, Anya employ his culinary skills as part of their many camping adventures. No sense in not eating well while in the outdoors, he suggests, as he recalls far too many childhood experiences with foil dinners gone wrong.

“Having been raised on foil packets of ground beef and potatoes cooked over hot coals, that often left one side burned and the other under-cooked, I know eating while camping can be so much more,” Brad says. “If you can cook a good steak at your house, you can cook a good steak when you go camping. It really just is applying heat to metal and metal to fat to sear a piece of meat.”

Not all his culinary memories from childhood are less than tasty. One in particular, that he experienced over and over again, helped spark his interest in a culinary career.

At about the tender age of 8, he was introduced to the flavors and smells of Lebanese cuisine via the grandmother of his best buddy at the time. He was intrigued by the variety. Even as a young boy, he recognized the value of the diverse ingredients used in the cooking process, and savored a deep whiff from the grandmother’s kitchen.

Her kitchen is where he met kibbeh – a yogurt-garlic sauce. And also eggplant and lamb – a meat he still enjoys working with, and encourages at-home cooks to try. Lamb sounds challenging to properly prepare, but Brad insists it is not. Cooking lamb chops or a rack of lamb requires a good sear and consistent indirect cooking, he says.

One might think Brad doesn’t cook much at home, but that’s the furthest from the culinary truth. He cooks five nights a week, he says. Butter, kosher salt and white wine vinegar as well as garlic and onions are his go-to ingredients.

“I love it,” he says, adding with a laugh that, of course, “it is easier at work where I have a commercial deep fryer and a commercial dishwasher. I hate doing the dishes.”