Anchorage chef and restaurateur Brett Knipmeyer has a pretty good idea why he was recently selected as a regional semifinalist for a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award, and it isn't his kitchen skills.
"They probably thought, 'He'd be perfect for a James Beard Award -- look at his beard!'" joked Knipmeyer.
Yes, Knipmeyer's thick, dark beard is impressive. But national dining enthusiasts have clearly learned what locals have known for years -- that Kinley's Restaurant & Bar in Midtown is the place where this classically trained chef delivers a dining experience that is fine yet friendly, reliable yet exciting, worldly yet Alaska.
Not bad for a Chicago guy who gave up an architecture career to travel and flip burgers.
Before opening Kinley's, Knipmeyer, 41, spent nearly seven years working the kitchen at Jens' Restaurant. It was there that he learned seafood secrets, how to create comfort and that in Alaska, brokers, lawyers and politicians often share dining rooms with fishermen, Hells Angels and strippers.
That experience has made Kinley's a hit and led to Knipmeyer's nomination for a 2013 James Beard Foundation Award in the Best Chef: Northwest division. He made the final 20, but was eliminated in the semifinal round last week.
Play recently caught up with Knipmeyer to talk about local dining, national recognition and what brought him to Alaska.
Play: Congratulations on receiving the James Beard Award attention. Pretty exciting, right?
Knipmeyer: I ride the fence on it. It's a great honor and really flattering, but I automatically go to, "How the hell did I get nominated?" ... We have a nice handful of independent restaurants up here that make creative, contemporary food that could rival any casual fine dining, bistro-type eclectic restaurant in any city. ... But I was looking at the list, and the New York chefs happen to be on the same page as me, and there's Wylie Dufresne, who is doing molecular gastronomy. How am I on the same page as this guy? This is the kind of person who will win a James Beard Award.
Play: You're from Chicago, and your career trajectory was leading you to architecture. How did you end up as a chef in Alaska?
Knipmeyer: My comical answer is that I was living in Colorado and I had a 150-pound Alaskan Malamute that was overheating, so I brought him home. ... I graduated architecture school in 1994, then headed west and abandoned my supposed career. I had a construction job lined up, but it fell through. I saw an ad in the paper for a no-experience-necessary cook at a bar and grill. I flipped burgers and made burritos. ... I had abandoned everything else, so I figured I should step it up. I went to cooking school (Western Culinary Institute in Portland, Ore.) and started cooking fine dining food.
We bounced around the Northwest ... My wife and I were looking for that perfect place -- we love being outside and I like having snow outside my door. So we said, 'Let's go as far northwest as we can,' and came up to Alaska in January 2000. I hooked up my job at Jens' upon arrival -- I didn't know then, but Jens' is a pillar in the culinary community. It introduced me to people in the industry and to clientele. As I'm doing my time at Jens', in the back of my head I felt there was enough of a population here to support another nice restaurant, so I slowly planned on it.
Play: Jens' is a special place -- some of Alaska's finest dining but also a comfortable restaurant for serious and casual diners. What did you take away from your time there?
Knipmeyer: One of the biggest things that got nailed into me from Jens is the quality of the seafood. Seafood is Alaska's main culinary delight. He was really hardcore on not overcooking fish. Down below, people slaughter fish, overcook fish all the time. Once you eat salmon rare to medium rare, wow -- it's really much, much better. ... Being in Alaska, people are a little more in tune to how seafood is best served. Jens was a real stickler on that.
And Jens was a master at making his customers feel like they were in a comfortable, regular spot -- they belonged there, were welcomed there, and people wanted to be there. He would always greet people; he'd touch on the tables. It's fine dining and nice food, but it's also a European bistro with a comforting, inviting quality. I tried to mimic that to some degree at Kinley's.
Play: Kinley's is also unique, from its menu to its look and feel. Talk about your vision for the place and how it's played out over the years.
Knipmeyer: My concept was groundbreaking: a nice restaurant with high-quality beverages and food that you'd like to go to (laughs). It's funny, but I just wanted to create and design a restaurant that I'd like to go to. It's a very personal design -- I call it rustic contemporary Alaskana. ... And the food: I'm classically trained and it's all classical French at root, but I've also tried to spread out my interest and love of travel, food and world cuisines on the menu. We offer an eclectic amount of ethnic-oriented food. Asian, Latin, throw some Indian in there, maybe some African and Vietnamese. I think it's fun to have a little bit of everything in one restaurant.
Play: Most cooks begin their careers in high school or college. You started late. Where does your passion for cooking come from?
Knipmeyer: There was no light bulb moment for me -- it was the culmination across the years that led me to it. ... I always start with my mom. My parents were born in the '30s; we were a stay-at-home, eat-dinner-at-the-table-every-night family. It was always a complete meal, but she always had a wide range of food, and it created a great building block of cooking for me. ... When I was 10 or 12, I started cooking for my parents on their birthdays. ... And in college, I was the guy who was making actual meals.
Play: And now you're a chef, restaurateur and businessman. Do you cook much at home or for fun anymore, or does it feel like a job?
Knipmeyer: Honestly, I don't cook at home much. On my days off, I probably eat out once and probably make something at home once, and it's very simple. ... But when my wife gets an itch for a dinner party at our place, it's not very potlucky -- I cook everything. It goes back to the reason you love cooking -- you're at home with a beer in your hand, making sauce, chatting with friends. And then you all sit at a big table and eat. It reminds you of why food is so enjoyable, why it can be a central point of your day -- everyone gathering for a meal, communion and conversation.
Editor's note: The print version of this story ran a photo of eggs Benedict with a caption stating that the dish is available on the Kinley's brunch menu. Kinley's no longer serves brunch except for Mother's Day and Easter, and eggs Benedict will not be on this year's Easter brunch menu.