Chef Reuben Gerber is perched atop Alaska's dining scene, and he loves the view: the grandeur of Alaska's mountains, water and wildlife, the pressure of guiding one of Alaska's most revered restaurants.
Since February, Gerber has been chef de cuisine of Crow's Nest on top of the Hotel Captain Cook, the celebrated four-star restaurant that takes Alaska cuisine to great heights. Gerber is used to rarefied restaurants. He traveled the world for training and built his fine dining resume in AAA five-star, five-diamond restaurants and resorts around his home state of California.
Gerber, 40, admits he came to Alaska two years ago for fun and a slower lifestyle, which he found at sleepy Jack Sprat in Girdwood. But after taking Jack Sprat from overlooked to overachieving, he was hungry for a challenge. At Crow's Nest, he leads a large team that serves discerning locals and well-heeled tourists Alaska's finest king crab, salmon and halibut, clams and scallops, greens and vegetables.
Gerber took a break from his busy summer to talk with Play about his passion for food and fresh air.
PLAY: You've traveled the world for work and play. What made you land in Alaska?
REUBEN GERBER: I came up here quite a bit with my dad to go fishing, backpacking, climbing. I had a real love for this place. ... In California, I was working 60 hours, then I'd get in my truck and drive five hours to bag peaks with my buddies, then drive five hours home. Why don't I just live and work in a beautiful place?
And I loved the challenge and opportunity here. I was always a little disappointed with the food scene in Alaska. It was always rice pilaf or mashed potatoes with halibut or salmon. My goal was to come to Alaska and help this culinary movement.
PLAY: What was your transition like moving from some of America's top resorts to Girdwood?
RG: Originally, the plan was for my wife and me to come up for the summer, take a chef job at a lodge and take the summer off. I'd been running this big machine doing breakfast for 150 people, then a million-dollar wedding in the afternoon, and then a big dinner service. I wanted a break. ... I found this position at Jack Sprat. (The owner) was looking for consulting ... As we got to talking, he offered me a position revamping his business and business plan. It sounded like a perfect project and a challenge, which I'm always looking for. My wife and I enjoy snowboarding and skiing, and I knew it would get me in the door in Alaska.
I came from fine dining to Jack Sprat, where it is casual chic. It's very different than what I was used to. Walking into that location after working in some of the finest establishments in California ... I thought about turning around (laughs). But I stuck it out and hired a great staff. It was a super-fun project, turning a small, 55-seat restaurant into a hidden gem. And it pushed Girdwood to put out better food.
PLAY: I'm guessing the experience also immersed you in Alaska's foods.
RG: It did. I was a little disappointed in the quality and consistency of the seafood we'd order, so I searched out fishermen and found the fish I wanted -- halibut from Kachemak Bay, not bigger than 30 pounds. They sold to my produce distributor and I bought through them. ... Sustainable seafood is very important to me. We have the power to make change here by what we purchase. It's a critical step. ... I found great prawns. I spent a lot of time in farmers' markets in Spenard and South Anchorage and watched the goods show up.
PLAY: How did the Crow's Nest opportunity develop?
RG: I knew that coming into the city I would find a different level of professionalism. That was a big draw -- being surrounded by other chefs that are foodies, I'd have sparring partners, so to speak. ... I saw a lot of turnover at the hotel and restaurant. I knew I could come in, really mentor and teach staff, and put this place on the map again the way it was in the '80s and '90s.
PLAY: Crow's Nest serves a demanding clientele, but you didn't waste any time putting your stamp on the place.
RG: The menu hadn't changed in a year; I change menus seasonally. That creates excitement. I launched a new menu in May. My philosophy in cooking is letting the raw ingredients shine. It's a more Mediterranean style of dining. It's about courses. It's also about educating the front of the house so that it's an entire dining experience instead of huge portions on plates masked with heavy sauces. It isn't about flashy colors and different things going on on the plate. It's about the art of restraint. You can have simple ingredients on the plate and let the fish and braised morels do the work.
PLAY: To loop the conversation back, you said you came to Alaska to take it easy, but it sounds like you're back on the grind again. Have you found that work/ life balance you came here for?
RG: No -- not at all (laughs). Luckily, it's light out, so I get off work tonight at 10:30 and I'll park on the Turnagain Arm and go for a 40-minute trail run. And I get two days off, so my wife and I always pack as much into those two days as we can. ... It's a challenging balance, giving so much, but it's required -- I want the Crow's Nest to succeed so I pour my heart and soul into it. It needs a lot of love and attention.
The art of restraint