This week, we visit with Rob Kinneen, executive chef at ORSO in Anchorage, Alaska. Born and bred in Alaska, when the culinary arts beckoned, Kinneen headed to Hyde Park, New York, to hone his skills at the Culinary Institute of America. After school, he remained in the lower 48, cooking first in the Big Easy and then North Carolina. Even though Alaska has a reputation for self-sufficiency, the state imports 97% of its food, a statistic that makes Kinneen cringe. Now a champion of Alaska’s producers, Kinneen is working hard to make sure the Last Frontier isn’t the last state to embrace sustainability.
Watch as Chef Kinneen opens up to OpenTable about the agony and the ecstasy of trying to source responsibly in the 49th state.
What are the challenges around sourcing sustainably in Alaska?
Several things. First, you have to consider seasonality – and then opportunity for availability. My ideas and philosophies are that demand will eventually determine supply, but right now, a farmer’s not going to grow something unless he can sell it, so he’s going to grow what he can sell. People aren’t going to produce product unless they can make a living. So, for me it’s finding the right product and finding the availability — and some of that does depend on nature as well.
Have you asked any farmers to grow specific ingredients for you?
I’ve got a few farmers that I really work with. Some grow parsnips for me. Some know what I’m going to be buying, what I’m looking for, and it’s as simple as purple carrots — these little products that they know they’re going to have. I haven’t been so bold as to dictate items that they’re going to grow, but I’ve kind of edged them toward some ideas.
This has been a tough growing season for Alaska with an unseasonably cool summer. What are you eagerly awaiting at market?
With the cooler weather bringing on a slower season, I’m really excited about the basics that we can use to dress up a plate. Whether it’s multi-colored cauliflower that that we love to roast, the purple carrots that I talked about, or parsnips in the fall. In September and October, I really look forward to playing around with the Brussel sprouts and hearty greens.
Does careful sourcing always come at a price in Alaska?
Sourcing local and price variances — that’s more of a perception. I buy a particular organic farmer’s product because he delivers a consistent product and a quality product, and it’s a little more expensive because it’s organic but not a whole lot. Compared to buying from a traditional vendor, it’s minimal. So, price is really a moot issue. It’s a perception that it has to be more expensive because it’s local, but I don’t think that’s always the case.
Where is Alaska at in the farm-to-table movement?
Alaska is built on determination and grit and perseverance, and I think with food that shines through. We do the best we can with what we have, but I anticipate that increased demand for more local items will influence supply. If we want local hothouse tomatoes more than two or three months out of the year, if there’s a demand for it, I believe somebody will grow that, using that as an inspiration to make a sustainable living.