This Saturday, Alaska's Kevin Lane will be in New Orleans, the lone Alaskan competing against 14 other kitchen wizards in the Great American Seafood Cook-Off.
Lane, executive chef at Chinooks Bar and Grill in Seward, earned his slot in New Orleans by winning the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off in May. His prize-worthy dish: a sourdough crusted sable fish (black cod), served with potatoes roasted in duck fat, sauteed seabeans, shitake mushrooms and red onions and a smoked salmon and veal jus.
"We're changing things up a little for New Orleans," Lane said in an interview at Chinooks last Saturday. He mentioned rhubarb pickles and pesto made from borage.
But the main ingredient is the fish, and for Lane it has to be local and fresh.
"If we can't get salmon fresh, we just take it off the menu altogether," he said.
Winning the Alaska competition brings bragging rights; but the New Orleans event puts a cook on the national stage and into some impressive company. The first challenge, in 2004, was won by John Besh of "Iron Chef" fame. The rules stipulate that whatever seafood is served, it must all come from the contestant's state.
Lane thinks that might give him a leg up. Other contestants range from Massachusetts, Oregon, Texas and Kentucky -- where seafood apparently includes fresh-water fish.
Raised in the Sacramento Valley, Lane started cooking at a San Diego restaurant called The Fish Market in 1985. He came to Alaska as the sous chef at the Baranoff Hotel in Juneau and to Seward when the Roadhouse Restaurant opened at the Windsong Lodge.
For 10 years he taught at the Alaska Culinary Academy in Seward. "But I missed being in the kitchen." So when one of his students, Lori LeMaster, and her husband decided to buy Chinooks last year, he came with them.
He brought with him a philosophy that not only stresses fresh and local food where possible, but also letting the natural flavor of the food speak for itself.
"We try to treat seafood on its own merits," he said. "We don't want to overwhelm it with spices."
How does that work? I had the grilled red salmon. It came with herb rice that tasted very much like plain rice. The seasonal vegetables (cherry tomatoes, onions, peas and mushrooms) were deliciously grilled, but not noticeably seasoned. The cucumber and yogurt sauce on top of the salmon was cool and mild.
But the fish was something to write home about. I never order salmon in a restaurant. I've had it right off the hook or out of the net and the overdone, desiccated, peppered and dilled meat regularly found in restaurants is too often a feeble attempt to mask the fact that the slab has been frozen for the past year or two.
That was not the case here. The skinless filet was rare and red but grilled to a near perfect point where it came apart in fat, firm, steak-like flakes.
Everyone else in my party went for the fish and chips (cod). The french fries were about the same quality as those at The Peanut Farm in Anchorage. The fish was very good, but there's no trick in making lip-smacking fried cod. Or rice. I can do those at home. I don't think I could nail the salmon.
The restaurant takes a lot of fish and chips orders, Lane said. "That's what people want, and we're a business." When the tourist business moves on at the end of summer, the menu changes to reflect the wants of locals. "We change the menu about three times a year," he said.
A handy card at each table tells you what Alaska seafood is in season in different months. If it's November, try the spot prawns... and what are you doing in Seward in November?
Several dishes are gluten free. A full bar includes house cocktails like the Jackrabbit (Alaska applejack, rye whisky, maple syrup, lemon juice), the Old School Aviator (gin, lemon juice, cherry heering, some other stuff) and the Corpse Reviver (Hendrick's Gin, Lillet, Cointreau, absinthe, etc.; I couldn't taste the Hendrick's).
Dinner entrees include prosciutto wrapped rockfish, smoky chicken wings, smoked pork loin and smoked scallop mac and cheese. "I'm very into my smoker," said Lane.
• Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.