Robert Lewis is a makeover master. His grandest transformation was turning a hard-drinking hippie haven in Girdwood named after a mountain that was named after a man (Max) into a fine-dining foodie hot spot in Midtown named after a woman (Maxine).
Never content, Lewis constantly renovates around a handful of menu mainstays at Maxine's Fireweed Bistro. He spotlights seasonal vegetables, reinvents classic steak and seafood dishes, and brings wild ideas to life.
"I like it all, but I get tired of things," admitted Lewis, 40. "I like to think fast and come up with specials depending on what ingredients I have around me -- what's fresh, what's interesting. I write recipes when I walk around stores. I'm obsessive. I make it difficult and really challenging, but it's all for the food."
Lewis and his wife, business partner and fellow culinary artist Kristine have suffered for their art since the early 2000s, when they traded Anchorage for Girdwood to take over the kitchen at Max's Bar & Grill. For two chefs who were culinary institute graduates, well-traveled and easily inspired, this was a personal Hell's Kitchen.
"It was a panini menu of eight sandwiches - they didn't have a clear concept," said Lewis. "We changed the menu every couple days, but it was a hard sell at first. People wouldn't come into the place. Max's had very bad reputation; it was seedy, looked bad, and we had to cook mediocre food.
"But every time we pushed the food a little further, we'd get people more interested in what we were doing," he added. "We'd take comfort food then tweak it and substitute ingredients here and there - use gruyere instead of cheddar. Suddenly, fancy food wasn't scary anymore."
Eventually, Lewis and his wife conquered the menu, wowed palates, bought the business and changed its name. The biggest leap was moving to Anchorage more than a year ago, taking over a quaint space in Midtown where many restaurants have failed. The Lewises have made the space their own - opening a solarium, expanding the wine list and introducing Maxine's finest to Anchorage's diners.
"It's been wonderful. It used to be that people came in and they were blown away -- they didn't expect anything special," said Lewis, who operates Maxine's while his wife pursues other culinary adventures. "Now people come in here expecting to be blown away. That's a lot of pressure, but it's a good feeling."
It's tough not to be impressed with Lewis' creations. They make the most of Alaska's offerings, travel the world and pack creative flair as rich as a blueberry-champagne beurre blanc, as fascinating as coffee-smoked pork and as snappy as a Parmesan crisp. Vegetables, seafood, red meats, entrees and appetizers all receive the same levels of imagination. Maxine's moxie might be best personified in a surf and turf appetizer. This sushi roll send-off has an asparagus spear stabbed through a juicy prime sirloin and topped with spicy crab salad.
"It's great to be able to imagine something in my head, then a couple hours later put that imagination into real life," said Lewis. "Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn't.
"But ultimately it all falls to execution," he added. "You can be creative and have ideas, but to put it on the plate when you have 20 tickets hanging and make it look the same and make it high quality every time, that takes a lot of skill and experience."