Going Wild in the Kitchen
I’ve never viewed myself as a chef, mostly because my go-to method for meals usually involves half an hour, a dog-eared cookbook with explicit instructions, and a veritable roundup to get everyone to the table on time. Grilled salmon, yes. Poached salmon decorated with sprigs of dill in a cream sauce surrounded by fiddleheads? Not so much. I may be an Alaskan who appreciates locally sourced and prepared foods, but I am also a mother of picky eaters, a freelance writer, and General Manager of Everything. I can’t take time out to learn about the delicate symbiosis of flavors and textures, greens and gastrique.
Or can I?
Perhaps in my rush to merely feed people, it is the tempo of cooking’s experiential process that I’ve been missing. I’ve come to the Cooking School at Tutka Bay, a remote and relaxing 30 minutes from Homer, to find it.
A recent addition to the already successful Tutka Bay Lodge property owned by Carl and Kirsten Dixon, the cooking school offers both the atmosphere and ingredients required for cooks like me, who want to stretch our comfort levels around food preparation, but also experience the intrinsic value of truly knowing about a dish and its unique characteristics. In other words, in order to feel confident with an end result in my own kitchen, I needed to sit down, relax in the wilderness and explore basic components of a recipe and how they fit into a menu—my menu—created for family or friends.
The Cooking School at Tutka Bay may sound formal, but it was purposefully created to be anything but, according to Kirsten Dixon. Author of several popular cookbooks featuring Alaska regional cuisine, Dixon’s style is personal and homey, but with a touch of class -- any dish she oversees at the lodge or school is presented with artistry. That part comes from her background as a Cordon Bleu-educated chef, but also from Dixon’s intimate knowledge of and respect for each ingredient.
“I want participants to be proud of their own Alaska cuisine, and the good air, soil, and water we have; to be thankful we are able to be here, and can do this in such a special place,” Dixon told me as we make our way across an expanse of elevated boardwalk on our way to the cooking school’s classroom. Prickly Sitka spruce boughs compete with blueberry bushes and tiny flowering plants for my attention, and the musky smell of low tide follows us. It’s a muggy day for Southcentral Alaska, and nature’s elements mix together in a swirl of sensory recall of my childhood spent in Washington’s coastal rainforests.
That short distance between Tutka Bay Lodge and the cooking school site is not by accident, Dixon says. The unhurried stroll between dock and classroom means guests have time to forage for ingredients, while distractions of busy lives at home melt away with each step. I notice that the sky is deeply blue, the water a briny green, and by the time we arrive at the Widgeon II, the cooking school’s living laboratory, my mind is clear and my hands are ready to cook.
If the name “Widgeon II” sounds nautical, that’s because it is. A refurbished former World War II troop carrier, then crabbing boat, the Widgeon II is creaky, with slightly tilting floors, and lacks running water. Permanently moored in a silty, forested cove across from Tutka Bay Lodge, it represents a transition from everyday to special occasion without pretense, and is the perfect location for cooking regional cuisine.
Guests sit at a bar made from rustic planking, where they chop, dice, and mix ingredients under careful tutelage from Dixon. Enormous driftwood stumps strung with lights secured with boat yard block and tackle hang over the table, and everywhere are signs of the Dixon family’s commitment to nature and food through books, photographs, and historical tchotchkes that fascinate me almost as much as the prospect of cooking class.
With less than four hours in which to introduce participants to Tutka Bay, local food, and the manner in which to prepare it, Dixon keeps class size to 12 people. This also allows her to become acquainted with everyone on a personal level, another reason to visit. “It’s my hope that more Alaskans will make the trip to Homer and then out to the bay for a day with us,” she said. “So many people don’t explore their home state, and these are adventures that make lasting memories, no matter where you come from.”
Dixon backs up that statement by welcoming my classmates and I with a warm smile, inquiries about our background, and questions related to what we hope to learn. When I mention I’d like to know more about foraging for greens, she points toward the sweeping view of Tutka Bay and the Lodge and said, “It’s all out there.”
And it was, indeed. Following Tutka Bay’s naturalist-guide Karyn Traphagen, whose deep curiosity and knowledge left me dizzy, we pulled beach greens, bladderwrack, and goosetongue, and took a few handfuls of blueberries that grow in the rich soil of the property’s 20 acres. Traphagen was careful to explain the “rule of fours” with respect to foraging: take 1/4 for me, leave 1/4 for others, 1/4 for the plant to regenerate, and 1/4 for animals and birds. Sustainability is a key value at Tutka Bay, a practice reflected in every aspect of life out here. Dressed with a light dusting of oil and rice wine vinegar, the greens, mixed with lettuces from Dixon’s impressive garden, popped in our mouths with a fresh tang found only in a place like Tutka Bay.
Enormous chunks of Alaska king crab were next, destined to be folded into batter for a puffy beignet. After a quick lesson on crab anatomy and the business of shelling the spiny exoskeleton, Dixon heated oil on a single-burner butane stove (there’s no range or oven on the Widgeon, a nod to the Kachemak Bay area’s high electricity rates) and deftly mixed fresh unsalted butter, comte cheese (a cousin of gruyere), fresh chicken stock, and eggs into a gooey concoction.
“Why?” is the question Dixon answers for every ingredient tossed, mixed, or chopped, believing that the more a chef knows, the more investment he or she will make in a particular dish. It all made sense, from the simple cooking facilities to a bowl of locally-gathered salt from Tutka Bay.
As each beignet is done bobbing in its bath of canola oil, Dixon places it on a plate layered with paper towels. Crisp and golden brown, these nuggets of seafood blanketed with a rich, delicious batter made me close my eyes and thank the men and women of Alaska who venture to the Bering Sea for king crab so that I might experience this moment of bliss.
Wine glasses clink gently together, and the lazy afternoon sun filters through dusty windows as sighs of contentment are heard around the table. Guests depart all too soon via water taxi or floatplane. Clutching recipes and the odd-shaped shell or two, we return home, more confident cooks, secure in this newfound personal cadence that will assist us in creating masterpieces in our own kitchens.
Naturalist John Muir, who spent abundant time exploring Alaska’s coastlines, once said that the most direct way to the universe is through a forest wilderness. I bet he would have added an experience on Kirsten Dixon’s creaky crabbing boat to that quote, tipping his glass to the success of valuing place as much as the bounty found within it.
HOW TO: Attending The Cooking School at Tutka Bay
The experience: Cooking school classes are held Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, May through September, beginning at 10:30 a.m. with a water taxi ride from Homer harbor, and ending at 3 p.m. with departure from Tutka Bay Lodge. Guests receive instruction for a rotating three-course menu paired with wines selected by lodge chefs and Kirsten Dixon. The day trip also allows time to wander the trails owned by the lodge, including a brief lesson in foraging, flora, and fauna.
Cost: The Cooking School at Tutka Bay classes are offered at $250 per person, which includes a water taxi shuttle to and from the lodge. Private functions and classes can also be scheduled at the Widgeon II. Class size is limited to 12.
What to bring: Homer and Tutka Bay are located within marine environments that constantly change, swinging between clear and sunny to rainy in just a few minutes. Guests should bring warm clothing for the boat ride to and from the lodge, comfortable shoes to walk the trails (rubber boots are always in fashion at Tutka Bay), and a hat for sun or rain, depending upon the day. A camera is also a good idea to capture the many scenic vistas, buildings, and, of course, your creations on board the Widgeon II. Dixon provides class participants with meal information, ingredients, and wines served at the table.