In the kitchen with...

Chef Shana Whitlock of Chicken Shack

By Amy Newman

Chef Shana Whitlock’s cooking credentials are firmly rooted in fine dining. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, she’s worked in some of the finest kitchens in New York and in Alaska, including the Torchon Bistro in Anchorage, which she owned and operated.

She thought the Chicken Shack, a Spenard restaurant she opened in 2018, would be different.

“Oh, it’s fried chicken. How hard can it be?” Shana says of her first real foray into casual dining. Turns out chicken, the star of so many comfort foods, isn’t so simple after all, she admits. “It’s ridiculously complicated. Chicken Shack has definitely been the hardest project I’ve ever undertaken.”

Raised on a Minnesota farm, Shana’s first taste of life as a restaurateur and chef came at age 16. It was a typical teenage server job at a local diner, but she was immediately taken with the hustle behind the counter.

“I was just so fascinated by the cooks in the kitchen and by what was going on back there,” she says. “I begged and pleaded to get into the kitchen.”

But instead of flipping pancakes and frying bacon, the chef de cuisine at Marx Brothers Café invited Shana to be a prep cook at the remote fly-in lodge he managed, which emphasized fine dining. The experience offered plenty of exposure that opened doors to some of Anchorage’s best kitchens over the next eight years.

Shana took a break from restaurant life, starting a family and running a small catering business on the side. Six years later she helped open the Red Chair Café, something she was “terrified about because I wasn’t sure if I lost my edge.”

She hadn’t, and in 2014 she opened her first restaurant, Torchon Bistro. It was her chance to “have it really be about what I wanted, to use my full skills and have my full book kind of open.” Although it closed after two years, Shana has no regrets. “It really opened a lot of doors for me.”

One of those doors led straight to the Chicken Shack. Although Torchon Bistro’s menu centered around pork, a fried chicken dish was one of its most popular. After spending so much of her career on fine dining, Shana found the idea of doing something more casual appealing.

“Fried chicken was just something that I knew I could do and was fun,” she says. “It’s just fun to do something casual.”

But whether upscale or “elevated rustic,” which is how Shana describes the food at Chicken Shack, her approach remains the same – cooking from scratch with the best possible ingredients. That means browning bones for homemade stock and from scratch sauces and gravies. Even the s’mores go upscale with a homemade marshmallow. It’s an approach that applies to home kitchens as well. Ranch dressing, for example, “doesn’t have to come from a bottle; you can make it and make it with the best ingredients,” she says.

When she’s cooking at home, Shana goes seasonal, both in terms of ingredients and cooking styles. The cooler weather has her braising oxtail and lamb shanks for hearty comfort dishes, and her grocery trips start in the produce aisle.

“I think starting with a vegetable as a focus and then going to a protein is healthy and it’s fun,” she says. “If you see something you haven’t seen since last season, put it in the cart and then follow up with a protein.”

One of Shana’s best cooking tips has nothing to do with food itself. “I know it sounds silly, but I think a good knife in the drawer is really important for some inspiration,” she says. “It will inspire you to want to buy the vegetables so you can go and practice your knife cuts.”

A year and a half into running the Chicken Shack, Shana’s long-term goals are now firmly rooted. “The goal is longevity,” she says. “Longevity with this restaurant and making ourselves embedded in our community here in Spenard and in Anchorage.”