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Being a chef at an adventure lodge in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness presents its own unique challenges.
Chef Kirsten Dixon knows this first-hand. She recalls hosting one of her cooking mentors, Madeleine Kamman, years ago. For a special treat, she flew in an assortment of French cheeses and artfully arranged them in the root cellar. She imagined they would stroll to the cellar, appreciate the gorgeous arrangement, and indulge together.
Sadly, Kamman was not able to enjoy the spread, as one of Dixon’s neighbors beat her to it. During the night, a bear literally broke down the cellar door and consumed all of the cheese.
Kirsten and her daughter Mandy Dixon are the main chefs at Within the Wild, a food and adventure family business in the South Central region of the state. The two professionally trained chefs enjoy balancing the fine dining they have experienced around the world with the rustic sensibilities of their off-grid lodges. In over 40 years of cooking in the wild, they have developed recipes, rituals, experiences, and techniques that celebrate the exquisitely fresh ingredients, diverse cultural influences, and realities of remote life in the Last Frontier.
Within the Wild
The Dixon’s journey into the wild began in 1982. Kirsten and her husband Carl were working in the medical field in Anchorage when they decided to make a radical change. “I was working in the ICU with people at the end of their lives,” she said. “I wanted to be in the bright middle of life.”
The couple purchased a remote plot of land accessible only by small plane and headed out. They opened an adventure lodge, hand built by Carl, where guests from around the world visited to fish for salmon and experience immersion in the wild. Kirsten served as the self-trained chef.
In successive years, they have shifted and expanded their business. Under the umbrella name Within the Wild, they now own two adventure lodges, a cooking school, and a café.
Winterlake Lodge is perched on the edge of the Alaska Range and open year-round. Summer guests hitch a helicopter ride for remote hiking or solitary salmon fishing. In the winter, the lodge serves as a checkpoint on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and guests enjoy viewing northern lights and cross-country skiing.
Seasonal Tutka Bay Lodge is ensconced in a private cove in a Kachemak Bay fjord. It is accessible by boat or plane, and features a white sand beach and old growth forest. Guest activities include ocean kayaking, whale viewing, and tide pooling.
There’s also a cooking school at Tutka Bay. It’s housed on the Widgeon II, a 1940’s crab boat that served a brief war duty and is charmingly rustic, with driftwood chandeliers and no stainless steel. Day guests learn cuisines of the world through the foods of Alaska. (Unfortunately, the cooking school is currently closed because of the pandemic.)
Finally, their café—called La Baleine Café—serves hearty fare seasonally on the spit in the bustling ocean-side town of Homer. Beloved by fishermen and tourists, it is packed all summer long for breakfast and lunch.
An Alaskan Cuisine
The Dixons’ version of Alaskan cooking is influenced by a range of cuisines. Native Alaskans were first on the land and provide inspiration for central ingredients like fish, wild game and berries. On the other hand, Russian influence lives on in the garden where short-season, long-storage root crops like beets and carrots thrive.
The legacy of Alaska’s pioneers is found in sourdough breads and the use of dried beans. Scandinavian cuisines (Kirsten is Danish) are included too, heavy in wild berries, smoked fish and pickled vegetables. Inspiration from Asian countries comes in with a the shared Pacific Ocean and an abundance of seafood.
The two also have personal experiences in French cooking that they bring to the table. Kirsten’s culinary education came via a French couple, guests at the family lodge. They invited her to Paris, enrolled her in Cordon Bleu, and took her all over France to Michelin star kitchens. “I met people who have a passion for cooking,” she said. “It changed my life.”
With a business named Within the Wild, it’s no surprise that wild foods are center stage. Alaskan seafood is a favorite: salmon, halibut, shrimp, oysters, and rockfish. Mushrooms, seasonal greens, birch syrup, spruce tips, and sea vegetables are foraged by lodge staff from surrounding forests and shores. Desserts often feature wild salmonberries, strawberries, and raspberries.
Each lodge has a garden in order to serve the freshest possible vegetables. Protective high tunnels extend their growing season, usually only 100 days long. Canning, drying, and freezing are important to preserve the harvest into the winter months.
Other ingredients are sourced from local organic farmers. The Dixons like to feature honey and barley couscous that they procure locally. Especially because anything they can’t forage, grow, or purchase from local farmers has to be transported from the hub of Anchorage.
A favorite breakfast at La Baleine is the Musher Meal. The Dixons also serve it each year to the passing Iditarod mushers at Winterlake Lodge. Black beans, brown rice, reindeer sausage, two eggs, Manchego cheese, fresh salsa, and pickled red onion, with a corn tortilla.
Lunch is a simple meal, packed so guests can enjoy while adventuring away from the lodges. The humble sandwich gets reinvented as salmon hand pies, blueberry bacon melts, and smoked salmon/vegetable rice patties.
Kirsten loves the convivial nature of appetizer hour. The food is served on found glacial rocks that have been collected on adventures. An ocean charcuterie includes a selection of smoked and pickled salmon, seaweed and wild berry chutney, sea crackers, and king crab spread.
Dinner is a feast. Kirsten maintains rituals like formal French serving styles, a carry-over from her cooking school days in Paris. It is particularly special, juxtaposed against the rugged backdrop. “We create a little magic, a vibe of elegance,” she said.
Guests might be served reindeer tenderloin with blueberry gastrique, Alaska-raised beef with smoked oysters and oyster butter, or halibut cheeks with black garlic, mushroom and foraged green dumplings in a sea broth. Desserts include spruce tip shortcake or chocolate mint olive oil cake.
Their cooking truly showcases the richness of Alaskan cuisine. “Alaska has a lot to offer a food-centric person wanting to discover new things,” said Kirsten.
Within the Wild has a core group of long-term employees. A strong sense of purpose makes the team cohesive. “We are influencing potentially important people about wild places, conservation, and sustainability,” said Kirsten
It is an ethic that connects them to the land. The Dixons walk the talk, working to preserve land within a 100-mile radius of both lodges in conservatorship, so that it will remain wild.
Their cooking connects them to people across cultures and time. When visiting one of their lodges, a family from India brought its own chef. The Dixons cooked half of the meal and the Indian chef prepared the other half. As they ate together and danced into the night, their differences became unimportant.
Near Tutka Bay Lodge, a 1,000-year-old cooking hearth is sculpted into the rock. Kirsten thinks about the women who first used it centuries ago and wonders, “What did they cook on that hearth?” She will never know the full answer. But by continuing to develop and serve her own style of Alaskan cuisine, she joins the lineage of women who harvest from this land and lovingly create sustenance from what they find.
Kirsten and Mandy Dixon have co-authored three cookbooks about their unique cuisine. The newly released “Living Within the Wild” places their recipes beside stories of Alaskan lodge life.
How To Make Salmon Bacon
- Take thinly sliced smoked salmon, like lox.
- Brush with simple syrup, local honey, or seasonal berry sauce. Add some freshly ground black pepper.
- Pan fry or bake in a 350-degree oven until crispy, 5-6 minutes.
- Serve with breakfast or as a garnish on soup.