It might have been a train depot, but on sunny, clear Wednesday night, it smelled like the sea.
At least kind of, if the sea were tempura-fried, served on fresh spring vegetables, sourdough-crusted or deeply char-grilled.
Such was the case at the second annual Great Alaska Seafood Cook-Off, which had six Alaska chefs battling for a title that carries weight in the 49th state -- who can cook the best seafood. The winner will travel to New Orleans in August to represent the Last Frontier in front of fruits de mer heavyweights from across the nation at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off.
The contestants? From Anchorage, Brett Knipmeyer of Kinley's Restaurant and Bar, Drew Johnson of Kincaid Grill, and Robert Lewis of Maxine's Fireweed Bistro; Stuart Campbell of Icy Strait Point in Hoonah; Kevin Lane from Chinooks Waterfront in Seward; and Mandy Dixon of Homer's La Baleine Cafe.
As guests moseyed through the Bill Sheffield Railroad Depot, snacking on Alaska spot prawns, smoked salmon and reindeer sausage, the chefs went about preparing a single high-quality dish using Alaska seafood in exactly one hour.
While the dishes might have been aiming to be five-star, the cooking environment was far from it. Sterile stainless steel tables held mini-fryers and impossibly tiny sautée pans. For Icy Strait Point executive chef Stuart Campbell of Hoonah, the cooking environment turned out the be the biggest challenge, as he and his assistant chef deconstructed a whole king salmon in front of a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers.
Campbell tried to use every part of the fish in his dish -- from the grilled filets the judges ate wrapped in butter lettuce, to the deep-fried fish skin garnish. Despite practicing before, there were still some glitches at the last-minute -- like the fryer not getting quite as hot as he would have liked.
But for Campbell, who said the event was his first-ever cooking competition, it was nothing he couldn't handle. Professional kitchens aren't known for being calm, collected and perfect.
"That's the part of cooking that's fun," he said.
It was Mandy Dixon's first cooking competition, too. Dixon, who's seen a few of the shows the competition is modeled after -- like Top Chef, Iron Chef America -- admitted she was nervous about having so many parts to her dish. With three separate components, Dixon knew she was taking a risk. Watch any of those shows long enough and it's a well-known fact that while a judge might love one element, another might be so disappointing it drags down the whole dish. Ergo, no win.
But Dixon said she wanted to show off her versatility as chef, with her homemade ramen noodle soup (made with baked baking soda, to give the noodles a little more chew) topped with a seared king salmon filet, a crunchy spot prawn toast and king crab beignet on the side.
And talk about versatility. Dixon had to catch a flight to Homer just minutes after the competition ended to make sure she was there to oversee the grand opening of her new restaurant there, La Baleine Cafe, which opened its doors at 5 a.m. Thursday morning.
While Dixon had some last-minute worries about the king salmon filet -- would the thick filet cook properly on the far-from-professional burner? -- overall she felt like she pulled it off pretty well.
"I thought (the dish) was good for the competition," she said. "Seafood's not just about fish. By using the shrimp and the crab, I think it gives me a little edge."
Perhaps it did. Dixon's steaming bowl of ramen impressed the judges, who fiercely dug into the dish before awarding it second place -- a tie between Dixon and Robert Lewis of Maxine's Fireweed Bistro in Anchorage. Lewis scored with the judges by serving a seared white king salmon on a bed of spring vegetables.
But it was Chef Kevin Lane of Chinooks Waterfront restaurant in Seward who took the top prize. His sourdough-crusted sablefish served with smoked salmon au jus, roasted mushrooms on a basil coulis topped with a tempura-fried sea bean -- a crunchy, salty, grass-like weed that when fried takes on a buttery quality -- impressed the judges with its creativity.
"I didn't try to make it too exciting," Lane said very non-nonchalantly, before being awarded the title. "It's pretty stiff competition."
It was a redemption of sorts for Lane, who placed second in the competition last year. He and his new blue velvet and gold crown, as well as the king crab glass platter "trophy," will represent Alaska in New Orleans on Aug. 3.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at email@example.com