Southern Sauce Meets Far-North Fungus: A Dispatch from an Alaska Mushroom Festival Kitchen
“Is your restaurant named for bread or whiskey?” I asked Jeff Qualls, chef at the farm-fresh, scratch kitchen restaurant Rye, in McKinney, Texas. I could guess the answer. “Whiskey,” he said. “We do craft cocktails.”
He got the inspiration for the restaurant when reading Andrew Beahr’s 2010 book, “Twain’s Feast,” a culinary memoir in which Beahr tries to track down some of the 80 hyper-regional 19th-century dishes Mark Twain lists in “A Tramp Abroad.” Qualls said that rye whiskey’s recent surge in popularity was a lucky coincidence.
Qualls came to Alaska to cook the Wild Harvest Feast for the Cordova Fungus Festival. He arrived with a cooler filled with smoked meats, bringing a little bit of Texas to his northern neighbors.
The Cordova Fungus Festival is an annual celebration of autumn and the wild foods of the rainforest. The festival features plenty of fungus education in the form of talks such as “Conserving Mycological Diversity,” and “Rainforest Mushrooms: Edible and Interesting Fungi of the Alexander Archipelago,” plus multiple daily forays let by experts who will point out what is edible and what is to be avoided. This year’s festival even included a youth expert: 10-year-old Gabriel Wingard from Girdwood, who led a kid’s outing.
On Saturday afternoon, volunteers gathered in the Cordova Center kitchen with chef Qualls for final dinner prep. The crew included myself, and Christa Hoover, the executive director of the Copper River / Prince William Sound Marketing Association, and two young men who work in local restaurants by day, but volunteered their off-time to help put on the dinner. As we chopped and peeled and minced and sliced, Qualls calmly layered flavors into parts of dishes that would become the evening’s Wild Harvest Feast.
“Here,” he said, handing out small tastes of his test grilled cheese—one of the passed hors d’oeuvres. “How about a little more jam?” he said to Logan, who was assembling the sandwiches. No ordinary grilled cheese, these delicious bites were smoked pork belly grilled cheese with manchego and strawberry-rhubarb jam on a light and crispy sourdough brioche from Cordova’s own wood-fired bakery, The Side Door Baking Company.
The star of the evening, the dish that had received the most oohs and mmms, was the miso-roasted coho salmon. Gasps of “the best silver salmon I’ve ever had,” and “it’s so tender and delicate,” were heard around the roomful of folks who are salmon fishing, cooking, and eating experts.
At the end of a rich and varied meal where earthy northern mushrooms danced with southern sauces, Qualls greeted the 120 diners and received a standing ovation. He stood on a chair and motioned for the crowd to sit.
“You guys make it easy,” he said, giving a nod to the fishermen in attendance, some of whom had likely caught the main course. He went on to assure the crowd that even in McKinney, Texas, Copper River salmon is on the menu.
If Jeff Qualls is cooking it, Texans are sure to be delighted, and perhaps even drawn, like Qualls, north to Alaska.
The Wild Harvest Feast Menu
Passed Hors D’Oeuvres
Smoked pork belly grilled cheese with manchego, strawberry-rhubarb jam
Fried green tomatoes with golden beet-cured coho tartare and red chili remoulade
Roasted wild mushroom vol-au-vent with sherry, tarragon, gruyere mornay in almond-crusted puff pastry
Kohlrabi and green apple slaw, sweet chili vinaigrette, pickled red onion, and toasted cashew
Miso-roasted coho salmon with fermented garlic jus, wild mushroom and scallion bread pudding, tamari roasted brussel sprouts, and pork belly braised collard greens with charred carrot and mushroom salt
Passed Dessert Tray
Assorted handmade desserts from Cordova’s finest home kitchen pastry chefs