SITKA — While many focus on Alaska's food source challenges, Anchorage chef Rob Kinneen capitalizes on the strengths.
"We should be working on where we are," said Kinneen, who was in Sitka last week. "We're unique, we're who we are. We need to think about producing our own microgoods."
Kinneen is the founder of Fresh49, a company that raises awareness on the benefits to Alaskans of using local foods and where to find them. During his week in Sitka, he gave a talk at last month's Food Film Festival, conducted food demonstrations at schools and for the public and joined two Pacific High School students to prepare a lunch for 20.
Kinneen's visit here was sponsored by the SEARHC health promotion department and Sitka Conservation Society. The two organizations coordinated Kinneen's demonstrations at Pacific High, Mount Edgecumbe High School, the Senior Center, Grace Harbor Church and Sitka High.
Renae Mathson, SEARHC health educator, said Kinneen showed those who attended the workshops and demonstrations how to make traditional foods "more palatable to people who have not been eating local foods." She said the chef not only showed the best ways to prepare these foods but also focused on the health and cultural benefits.
"So many people don't know how to prepare traditional foods," Mathson said. She added that if more people ate traditional foods, they could reduce chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, and also promote good health and general wellness.
"That's an Alaska issue, not just an Alaska Native issue," said Kinneen, who is Tlingit. He was raised in Petersburg and Anchorage and now lives in Anchorage. He studied culinary arts during high school before going on to graduate from one of the top culinary schools, the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y.
After graduation from culinary school, he worked at celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse's second restaurant in New Orleans, and in the North Carolina "triangle" area, before returning to Alaska. During his time away he watched the "farm-to-schools" movement take hold.
Kinneen, 38, said he was struck by the proportion of food from out of state that is consumed in Alaska -- about 96 percent -- and the paucity of local foods in commercial and home cooking.
"If you think about how wrong that is ..." he said. "What would happen if we had a natural disaster and couldn't get food in? It would be devastating to a lot of the state. At the end of the day, there are a lot of issues."
Kinneen wants to see the situation change and for people to start using more of what is available outside their doors.
"I figured it was time to stand up and take a look at it from a different perspective ... or leave the state," he said.
Kinneen makes his living as a chef in Anchorage restaurants and through local foods contract work, which is his passion. He said he may be hired to put on a 500-plate local foods dinner for a health organization, or serve as a visiting demonstration chef in communities around the state, like Sitka. About four years ago, he was the guest chef for the Sitka Seafood Festival and has been back twice to work the popular local event.
On his visit to Sitka last week he worked with two kids at Pacific High School to prepare a dish of locally donated coho salmon, brown rice and black bean salsa garnished with beach asparagus. They prepared plates for 30, and it was polished off by the 20 students who came to lunch.
"That was pretty fun," Kinneen said.
At Mount Edgecumbe High School he conducted a demonstration and worked with the kids to make a meal of salmon rolls with black seaweed, goose tongue, beach asparagus and seal oil.
Along the way, Kinneen has been passing on the importance of local foods in the economy. He also applauds the work of companies that are able to capitalize on local ingredients to create premium products. He cited Alaska Pure Sea Salt Co. of Sitka as one such company.
"We have all the ingredients to be a top-notch culinary destination," he said.