Wilderness setting, unique opportunity lure young culinary talent to Tutka Bay

  • Chelsea Gunn pours rose panna cotta into bowls to chill and set before a cooking class at Tutka Bay Lodge. Gunn, a cooking instructor at the lodge, will serve the panna cotta as a dessert to the guests.-Photo by Anna Frost, Homer News
  • Aisha Ibrahim, Tutka Bay Lodge's chef for the 2016 summer season, demonstrates how to filet a salmon in The Tutka Bay Cooking School. Tutka Bay offers cooking classes held on the Widgin II. a repurposed crabbing boat on the lodge's property.-Photo by Anna Frost, Homer News
  • Tutka Bay Lodge is about a 25-minute boat ride across the bay from Homer.-File photo/Homer News
  • A beet salad with creme fraiche and garnished with flower petals is one of the dishes featuring local produce that the culinary staff at Tutka Bay Lodge create.-Photo by Anna Frost, Homer News
  • Aisha Ibrahim, a chef at Tutka Bay Lodge for the 2016 summer season, runs her knife along the backbone of the salmon to create a filet with one clean cut. -Photo by Anna Frost, Homer News
  • House-made salmonberry marshmallows accompany dark chocolate and house-made graham crackers to make s'mores for a bonfire on the beach at Tutka Bay Lodge.-Photo by Anna Frost, Homer News
  • Chelsea Gunn, a cooking instructor at Tutka Bay Lodge, stirs a rose panna cotta mixture on the stove. Gunn will serve the dessert to the guests at her afternoon cooking class.-Photo by Anna Frost, Homer News
  • Chelsea Gunn, cooking instructor at Tutka Bay Lodge, explains the menu of a family-style dinner to lodge guests. -Photo by Anna Frost, Homer News

Tutka Bay Lodge, located across the bay from Homer, attracts their employees with the same ingredients that bring in guests from around the world — thoughtful, anticipatory service and pristine Alaska wilderness.

Kirsten and Carl Dixon, who own Tutka Bay Lodge and Winterlake Lodge in partnership with their daughters Mandy Dixon and Carly Potgeter, bought the lodge in 2009. They later purchased additional property adjacent to their lodge, placed a renovated crabbing vessel called the Widgin II on it, and turned it into the Tutka Bay Cooking School.

Quality cuisine made from locally sourced ingredients is emphasized at the lodge, where both Mandy and Kirsten work as chefs and teach cooking classes. However, the lodge also seeks out hardworking individuals to become a part of the team and serve the lodge’s guests for a season.

“We never look at somebody in the sense of them coming back or a potential return candidate,” Kirsten said. “I just like to think that the bigger picture is that really creative, talented people should come my way and then I should let them go out into the world again.”

Chef Aisha Ibrahim and her partner Sam Beaird began work at Tutka Bay Lodge after coming back from opening a restaurant in Thailand and running a pop-up restaurant, a mobile restaurant that temporarily occupies different spaces for a limited period of time, in Malaysia. They returned to the states after a year in Southeast Asia, expecting to take a vacation before Ibrahim speaks at the 5th annual MAD (taken from the Danish word for ‘food’) culinary symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark along with other chefs, farmers, academics, thinkers and artists in late August.

“We got bored after not working for a week so we were looking, where do we want to go next,” Ibrahim said. “Alaska seemed like such an adventure, which it is. … The appeal of Homer, Alaska, in general, was we get so much incredible seafood from Alaska as chefs but to come here and see it for yourself and experience it, it’s pretty incredible.”

The experience of working with fish straight out of the bay or foraging for berries and mushrooms from the wooded area around the lodge is new for Ibrahim, who enjoys creating simple dishes that showcase food’s natural flavors.

“People always know when I’m unhappy with something because there’s a lot more ingredients on it. I’m still trying to understand the dish,” Ibrahim said. “But when it’s three things, it’s on the menu because I’m happy with it and it’s simple because I found a way to utilize three things in a beautiful, harmonious way.”

Ibrahim entered the California Culinary Academy, an affiliate of Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco, after leaving a Division I athletic scholarship. While recovering from an injury, Ibrahim began reading and cooking from Julia Child cookbooks, which sparked a love for the culinary arts.

“It was that initial experimentation. The intrigue was definitely real. It was a different kind of trying to succeed in something. It’s structure, but it’s not structure. Everything was different. Everything was a challenge,” Ibrahim said. “How do you make something delicious versus here’s what you do. As an athlete you’re always told what to do.”

After finishing culinary school, Ibrahim interned at since-closed two-star Michelin restaurant Aqua in San Francisco. She moved from high-end fine dining to casual dining, working in several well-known San Francisco restaurants, and then rose to the position of executive chef by age 24.

She hated it.

So Ibrahim sent out resumes and eventually ended up working a one-month internship at David Kinch’s acclaimed resaturant Manresa in Los Gatos, Calif. Manresa is rated as a three-star establishment by the prestigious international benchmark of quality Michelin guide, which was started by French tire company Michelin in 1900 as a way to encourage drivers to travel and therefore create more demand for their product.

After going to Tokyo to work at Ryugin during the year it was awarded its third Michelin star and working at a handful of other California restaurants, Ibrahim took a job back at Manresa. Over the course of five years, she moved up to the position of sous chef.

“When you spend time with a chef, you learn to think like them, then think for them. You think like them first before you’re allowed to think for them. When you start thinking for them, that’s when you are the sous chef and the chef du cuisine,” Ibrahim said. “It’s really crazy because … you’re more them than they are.”

Ibrahim, who is now 30, strives for that kind of anticipation for guests at the establishments she works in. Thoughtfulness is key — whether that means having someone Google guests before they come in for a meal, or having conversations with them once they are there, in order to figure out what would surprise or delight them.

“I think innately you have to be a people pleaser in some ways,” Ibrahim said. “Just anticipating those aspects of how someone would like to dine. Or creating experiences where someone wouldn’t normally like that, they’re interested in it but they wouldn’t normally like it, and then you know you can prepare it properly.”

When cooking at Tutka Bay Lodge, Ibrahim looks to bring such aspects of high-end dining to the guests, doing so in a way that makes them feel at ease and cared for.

“I think it’s unique here or in fine dining where you can really go out of your way to be very nice, kind and thoughtful for someone. It’s so rare in general dining,” Ibrahim said. “Thoughtfulness is very rare and I like being thoughtful. I think it’s a lost art, sadly.”

Chelsea Gunn has been thoroughly impressed with Tutka Bay Lodge’s model of service in the approximately two-and-a-half months she has been a cooking instructor at the lodge.

“I think that the concept of anticipatory service is probably the biggest takeaway, the coolest part of being here,” Gunn said. “We really pride ourselves on having big ears and overhearing things. If a guest is on a hiking excursion and says, ‘I love oysters, I can’t remember the last time I had really good oysters,’ we have oysters waiting for them when they get off the boat.”

At 23, Gunn falls into the category of talented young people passing through Tutka Bay Lodge before going elsewhere in the world.

Gunn received her bachelor’s degree in advertising and public relations from Loyola University in Chicago at age 19. After suddenly developing a compulsive need to cook in her last year at Loyola, Gunn spent her last semester studying abroad in the south of France and then moved to Paris to study at Le Cordon Bleu.

“In my senior year I got bit by some bug. I had to get up and cook in the middle of the night and I was in a dorm so it was gross dorm food that I was throwing together, but it was something I could do,” Gunn said. “I started studying and going to all the food classes I could and then just decided I really wanted to go to culinary school, and if I was going to learn I might as well go to the best place to learn from.”

A year later Gunn received the Grand Diplôme, a comprehensive culinary arts diploma in both cuisine and pastry, and moved back to her hometown of Nashville, Tenn. She started a chocolate company named Tempur at the local farmers market, and then opened a brick-and-mortar establishment the following year. The name of Gunn’s business combined the word “temper,” which is a process of bringing chocolate to temperature and stabilizing its molecules in order to set it properly, and the French word for perfection, “pur.”

“We had wine and cheese and charcuterie and little French baguettes, sandwiches, French pressed coffee. Super French-y, super cute,” Gunn said.

She sold Tempur to her business partners in April 2015 and started a consulting business for restaurants and culinary companies, pairing her culinary talents with her advertising and public relations knowledge.

“I have the advantage,” Gunn said. “If no one knows about them or they’re new, I can work with the branding and marketing, or if everyone knows about them, but … their back of the house process is garbage, I can go in and fix that.”

In addition to her business, Gunn teaches private cooking lessons, which she started doing in people’s homes while attending culinary school in Paris. After the summer season at Tutka Bay Lodge, she plans to continue consulting and teaching.

Coming to Alaska was a change for the self-described city girl, but being immersed in nature and being able to see how the Dixons run the lodge, as opposed to some of the more corporate establishments she has recently worked with, has been a growing experience, Gunn said.

“I think everyone dreams about coming to Alaska,” Gunn said. “This part of the state and this lodge really are so different than a lot of the party lodges and I was really looking for this idea of anticipatory service that we’ve got going on. It’s very up my alley in regards to the hospitality I want to help put out in my consulting career.”

Anna Frost received a grant to attend a food writing retreat with New York Times editor and former food critic Sam Sifton at Tutka Bay Lodge. She can be reached at anna.frost@homernews.com.

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