From upscale white tablecloth restaurants to take-out sandwich shops, Homer's creative chefs have been crafting a cuisine that, for lack of a better term, could simply be called Homer Style. It's a food culture distinguished by an emphasis on wild seafood and locally grown vegetables, many from local high-tunnel greenhouses, mixed with a variety of styles from fusion to French.
The latest entry is La Baleine Café on the Homer Spit, a project a year in the making that started with some private events last summer and officially opened May 10. The name -- French for "the whale," and pronounced la bail-een -- shows its origins: classical French cuisine.
No upstart in Alaska's cooking culture, La Baleine brings the talents of Kirsten and Carl Dixon and daughters Mandy and Carly Dixon to the town side of Kachemak Bay. Kirsten and Mandy are Le Cordon Bleu trained chefs who have cooked and studied with Julia Child and Thomas Keller.
Partners in Within the Wild Adventure Company, the Dixons own Tutka Bay Lodge and the Cooking School at Tutka Bay across Kachemak Bay. Next door to La Baleine in a cluster of shops by the steel grid at the harbor also is their RusticWild, a home goods boutique shop with gifts, Ray Troll T-shirts -- the uniform of La Baleine -- and ingredients cooking school students can purchase for the dishes they've learned to make.
Mandy Dixon, 27, Within the Wild's executive pastry chief, opened La Baleine a day later than planned, but for a very Homer reason: her flight got canceled. Dixon had been in Anchorage last Wednesday for the Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off. She was one of six chefs invited for the contest to represent Alaska at the Great American Seafood Cook Off. Dixon tied for second place with a wild salmon ramen dish -- a dish she also serves at La Baleine.
That kind of food is typical of the menu: simple food that appeals to fishermen and Spit workers as well as tourists. The idea was for a café that's not "too foo foo," Dixon said, but also not a burger joint. Seafood, an ingredient Dixon said she's excited to get in Homer, is of course on the menu, .
"We can get fresh fish in Anchorage," she said. "But not this fresh."
Hearty breakfast dishes top the menu, and are served all day, including a breakfast burrito, a breakfast skillet, granola and steel cut oats.
Lunch dishes include a salmon bowl with a miso ginger dressing, a deli sandwich, salmon, beef and veggie burgers, and a Dungeness crab melt. Vegetables will come from local farmers once crops start coming in.
Surprisingly, prices for local vegetables are better than that of restaurant suppliers and better than Costco, Dixon said.
"And of course the freshness and support of local businesses that go with it," she said of the good prices.
The affordability of local ingredients is reflected in La Baleine's prices, with the most expensive items at $13.
The youngest of the Dixons' two daughters, Mandy said she tried out culinary school at her mother's suggestion, with the caveat that she didn't have to stick with it if she didn't like it. Dixon liked it, and after getting an associate arts degree at the California School of Culinary Arts, Los Angeles, went on to study at a Napa Valley branch of the New York based Culinary Institute of America.
Born in Anchorage and raised at family lodges in Yentna and later Winterlake Lodge, Dixon returned to Alaska in 2008 after studying and working in the Lower 48. She helps manage the cooking school at Tutka Bay.
La Baleine also offers boxed breakfast or lunch meals to go as well as baked goods and other to-go items like yogurt and granola. Later in the season La Baleine will offer dinner on selected nights. The café also can be booked for private parties. A percentage of La Baleine's profits will be donated to Cook Inletkeeper, the Homer environmental organization.
Editor's note: Kirsten Dixon is a contributor to Alaska Dispatch. This story first appeared in the Homer News. Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.