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Chef brings taste of Alaska to NYC

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Courtesy Kirsten Dixon | www.withinthewild.com
On Wednesday evening, 80 or so gourmands will gather at the James Beard House in New York City, where they will slurp Kachemak Bay oysters, and slice into Alaska red king crab croquettes. They'll sigh over fresh Matanuska-Valley beets and ooh over our halibut and salmon and shrimp shaped into cakes and stuffed into dumplings.

And that's just for starters.

Then comes the squash soup, the tundra-fed reindeer, the goose-fat fried fingerling potatoes. The cheeses dipped in Alaskan honey. The birch caramel pot-de-crème and the homemade chocolates.

It takes more work than you'd imagine getting this together. Years of training. Months of planning. Weeks of fretting. Days spent boxing up food.

Before Alaskan chef Kirsten Dixon and her daughter Amanda, who is the pastry chef for the event, left for the trip on Sunday morning, they shipped out about 900 pounds of food. A cornucopia of Alaska greens and roots, game and seafood.

Dixon is probably Alaska's most recognized chef, outside of Alaska that is. And it's a huge honor to be allowed to cook in Beard's house. Known as the "dean of American cookery," James Beard was the first chef to tout American cuisine to the world. He died in 1985, but his foundation continues to celebrate America's food community, which includes inviting chefs nationwide to cook there.

dixon.1_10_09It's an invitation that's akin to being invited to give a recital at Carnegie Hall, Dixon said. And she'll take some credit for the work that's gotten her here: the cooking classes and the degrees and the traveling. But what she seems most excited about is the chance to put Alaska's food culture on the map, not only to the rest of the world, but to Alaskans themselves.

(To that end, Dixon said, she invited Gov. Sean Parnell and Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski. Parnell never replied. Begich's office sent her a form with instructions of how to set up a meeting with him. Murkowski was going to attend the event, but a vote is keeping her away.)

"People don't think that Alaska has a unique cuisine," Dixon said recently over a Cobb salad in one of Anchorage's newest foodie joints, the Spenard Roadhouse. "But that's just not true. I think that some of the most interesting cooking happens in homes all across this state, away from Anchorage. These are people who are wonderful home cooks, who are well-traveled, well-educated, who don't have access to restaurants, but are sophisticated. Maybe they decide to live in Chicken, say, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they don't know what foie gras is, or haven't been to Prague."

She knows this because she's spent most of her adult life cooking sophisticated meals for people outside of Anchorage, in one of the three backcountry lodges she and her husband own, lodges noted in the travel and food circles for their beauty and excellent food.

A former nurse, Dixon was interested in cooking when she and her husband opened their first sports fishing lodge on the Yentna River in the 1980s, but she was too busy raising two children in a cabin without running water to do much about it. Then a couple from France, who the Dixons befriended when they stayed at their lodge, invited her on a culinary tour of the country.

"What that trip did for me was open me up to the fact that there was a scene out there," she said. "That there were people interested in food; in talking about food and experimenting with food."

From there it was on to the Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and a degree in gastronomy, and another advanced degree in creative writing. On her off time she travels to restaurants all across the world, learning and volunteering. Then she comes back to Alaska and treats her lodge guests to what she's learned, as well as sharing her recipes and stories about her life in print. So far she's penned two cookbooks, Riversong Lodge Cookbook, and the Winterlake Lodge Cookbook, which won her the "Best Female Chef USA" award by Gourmand International.

For all of this, Dixon's Alaska-humble. She has the names to throw around, but she'll keep them to herself unless prodded. She'll brag on her daughters Mandy and Carly, and how they are now helping to run the family business, and what an honor it is for Amanda to be invited to the Beard House as the pastry chef.  She'll talk about one of her mentors, Madeleine Kamman, and others who she learned from throughout her career. But it takes some prodding to get her to talk about her experiences with Julia Child. When I pushed, she said that Child had invited her over for dinner when Dixon was studying in Boston.

"She roasted a chicken for me," Dixon said. "We drank two bottles of campaign. It was fun."

She also was a chef at one of Child's birthday parties, but she stays mum about it, fearing that it will sound like bragging.

She'll talk for a long time about Alaskan cuisine, though, and the bounty this state has to offer from our wildest of farms to our own rough-sawn tables.  And now to the candle-lit tables in New York City.