Standing in the shallows of a rushing stream, waders on, fishing pole baited with roe, poised for salmon to take the line—it’s just another day in the life of chef Travis Haugen of Southside Bistro in Anchorage. That’s probably stretching a point, but if some chefs here aren’t out catching their own fish—as Travis did with Moveable Feast host Pete Evans in one of our Alaska episodes—they’re usually cooking it daily. “My chef friends around the country love wild Alaska salmon. Its rich flavor and melt-in-your-mouth texture make it such a coveted species,” says Travis. “But when salmon is in season (late spring to early fall), it’s an everyday kind of thing here, along with halibut, rockfish, oysters, scallops, and shrimp.”
Fresh seafood is always on the menu at Travis’s laid-back restaurant, which he co-owns with his wife, Amanda, and chef Jens Nannestad. Fish appears in modern American dishes, like pan-seared salmon with a mushroom “tea” that won Travis the 2014 Great Alaska Seafood Cook Off. “I am a Midwestern kid who grew up with stick-to-your-ribs kind of farm food,” says the Cordon Bleu-trained Minneapolis native. Travis came to Alaska 12 years ago to work as a line cook at Alyeska Resort, 40 miles from Anchorage. From there, he moved on to Southside Bistro, eventually becoming chef de cuisine as well as part owner. “I learned to cook seafood here in Alaska, where I focus on high-quality and interesting combinations.”
Joining Travis to cook on this episode is fellow Anchorage chef Patrick Hoogerhyde of Bridge Seafood. The chefs have decided the feast will be all seafood, just in case there’s any doubt about what drives the Alaskan culinary imagination. Patrick plans to fillet and pan-sear a 40-lb. halibut that he picked up from local purveyor Copper River Seafood, and serve it with a crisp cucumber-radish slaw.
Travis believes that really fresh fish requires little in the way of preparation and is best left as natural as possible, which is what he has in mind after watching Pete haul in a big, fat 20-lb. king salmon. “When you have salmon like this, you don’t want to overwork it,” says Travis, as he envisions a tomato-anchovy dressing to accompany the simply grilled fish.
Using as much of the fish as possible is key, says Travis. After the salmon has been filleted, Pete takes the belly and mixes it with a ginger-tamari dressing and golden raisins for an Asian-inspired appetizer that he wraps in shiso leaves. And Patrick turns the “spoonmeat” (the remaining flesh that is scraped from the bones with a spoon) into an amazing tartare to be served to guests as they arrive.
Gathering on the balcony of a private home with a view of the Chugach Mountains, which are still crowned with snow in the middle of summer, guests mingle and nibble. Craft beer is big in Anchorage, and a lager from local King Street Brewing is on hand. (Patrick also uses King Street stout in his ice cream floats for dessert.)
“This is a close-knit community. There’s a lot of eating and drinking together, especially during the ‘dark days’ of winter, but more than the food, it’s about the camaraderie,” says Travis. Now, though, it’s summer, and the sun barely sets. The season is short, but appreciation for it is long. When good friends are gathered and the wild salmon is this fresh, life is good.
Haugen’s Local Heroes
Fresh fish is one reason to adore Anchorage. Chef Travis Haugen has about a hundred more. Here are five of his go-to spots.
• On Saturday mornings, my first stop is always Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop for coffee and a sweet treat. The scones and breads are delicious. It’s the best bakery in town, and it’s all organic. (fireislandbread.com; 2530 East 16th Avenue; 907-274-0022)
• After the bakery, I hit a few markets. The Anchorage Farmers Market isn’t showy, but the produce— including greens from Arctic Organics, which we use at the restaurant— is terrific. (anchoragefarmersmarket.org; arcticorganics.com; 15th Avenue and Cordova Street)
• There is so much amazing hiking to do up here. I love going to Lost Lake Trail, about two hours south of Anchorage, in the Chugach National Forest. The summer blueberry picking there is out of this world! (alaska.org)
• The seafood is so good in Alaska that the sushi is always unbelievable, especially at Peter’s Sushi Spot, a Japanese and Asian-fusion izakaya (a Japanese-style pub). (peters sushispot.com; 3020 Minnesota Dr.; 907-562-5187)
• Alex Perez, at Haute Quarter Grill, is a longtime chef up here and a good friend. His menu is modern American, and he has an excellent charcuterie program—I love the prosciutto. (hautequartergrill.com; 525 W. 4th Ave.; 907-622-4745)