Will Travel for Food

Cooking at the Little Port Walter Research Station

Will Travel for Food

Only improvisational chefs need to consider the possibility of cooking at the Little Port Walter Research Station on Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska. This isolated facility, located about 125 miles southeast of Juneau, is accessible only by boat or seaplane. This field station is part of the National Marine Fisheries Service and it conducts a variety of research studies including the effects of crude oil contamination on the survival of pink salmon.

I found out about this unique cooking opportunity in Little Port Walter from my friend, Austin caterer Frauka Baylor, owner of Blue Trout. She wanted me to consider doing the first six weeks of a three-month schedule that started in May, so that she could honor catering commitments here in Austin. Once I agreed, she committed to work from the middle of June to the end of August. My responsibilities as a chef included providing lunch and dinner six days a week to a crew that numbered between six to 12 people. I had complete freedom to cook whatever I liked and a reasonable budget for food. Groceries for the facility are purchased in Juneau and arrive at Little Port by supply boat once a month and more frequently by seaplane. Produce selection in Juneau is not as fresh or affordable as we enjoy in mainland cities because it is shipped by barge from Seattle. The challenge of not knowing if the food I had requested would even be available required a lot of flexibility and improvisational skill that have fortunately become second nature to me in my 20 years of catering.

When I first viewed the kitchen at Little Port Walter I was astounded by the breathtaking view from the bay windows that looked out at the gulf water only a few feet away. Seals stared at me hauntingly from the water, bobbing up and down for fish as waves crashed into the steep rocks below. My reverie was cut short by a premonition about the diesel stove I would have to use. It sounded like a giant blowtorch challenging me to cook something extremely delicate; I had to budget 45 minutes to get a temperature of 350 degrees.

Marko Ellinger and his green bananas flambe
Marko Ellinger and his green bananas flambe (Photo By Connie Leaverton)

The menus that I designed were influenced by the chilly and rainy conditions that were common in May. Temperatures only reached into the 60s, so soups were extremely popular for lunch. Although the pantry had been stocked with a large inventory of canned goods, I chose to make homemade stocks in order to craft some hearty signature soups. Lunch also included a casual entrée such as chicken quesadillas, salmon potato pancakes, international wraps, and seafood lasagna. Dinner menus were casual but more diverse: lemongrass chicken with basmati pilaf and roasted asparagus with fennel cookies for dessert. Other menus items included baked salmon with a massage of herbs, butternut cornbread, three pepper steak, cornmeal halibut, saffron-infused tofu with vegetables, prawns in a package, confetti omelettes, zested poppyseed cake, and green bananas flambe.

Working boats were available for casual fishing expeditions after hours and on weekends. As I cruised out into the surrounding bay I could see numerous snow-capped mountains and dramatic waterfalls streaming down steep cliffs. One of the residents of the island was not only gracious enough to show me where some of his favorite fishing spots were, but cheerfully consented to filet all the rock fish we caught. Casting our fishing lines out for only an hour yielded enough for dinner. Occasionally, beautiful fillets of fresh halibut and steelhead trout were brought to me unexpectedly and I was quick to change menus.

Harvesting Alaskan Spot Prawns was actually easy with the shrimp baskets that had been baited with frozen pieces of steelhead trout and submerged at a depth of around 400 feet. Using a hydraulic pulley to hoist them out eight hours later, we placed our catch in a salt-water container. Only an hour later, one of the crew volunteered to pop the heads off these 6-inch prawns and bring them to my grill. I was amazed at how dramatically they moved about as they danced to the heat.

One day I decided to go to a nearby beachhead to do a little yoga and saw an octopus sunning itself on a protected rock. I was stunned by the richness of its reddish purple hue and I realized I could not feel comfortable killing it for food. (Of course, I feel no remorse catching a 50-pound halibut.) As I returned from my walk I sighted some bear droppings and realized I had been careless in not bringing my rifle. One of the research team with an NRA certification had trained me to shoot a 30.06 to protect myself in the event of an emergency. It was at that moment that I realized that I could lose my life in an instant and thought of the woman I love and my family back home. Needless to say, I never forgot my rifle again.

Some of the residents on the island expressed an interest in gaining culinary information and I was motivated to offer a tofu class to unravel its mystery. In the spirit of scientific research, I conducted numerous experiments on these worthy participants, including a really wacky food comedy show that had me juggling meat cleavers and balancing raw eggs on top of a mad scientist.

As my five-week stay ended, I realized that I had come away with much more than a direct deposit and some new recipes. I had made lots of new friends and redefined the parameters of my comfort zone to include the brown bears of Baranof Island.

Marko Ellinger is a freelance caterer who also performs comedy food shows. His Web site is www.chefmarko.com.

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