Stirring the Wild Pot of Alaska 2014

Two days ago the TV concept a producer told me that he wanted to see was for me to harvest something from the wild and cook it in a local kitchen here in Anchorage. Despite being jet lagged and having a bit of a cold from my 15-hour flight I was pumped to take on this challenge.

I woke up yesterday with the rising sun and walked into the solar light beams as they lit the dusty city streets. I headed north a few miles to the nearest park on a mission to find anything edible, something to show me the first signs of spring. There's at least two feet of snow pack yet to melt and a quick look at the spruce trees shows no signs of the tips being ready to pick. I planned on making a spruce tip syrup and drizzle it on some Kodiak scallops. I cannot find green spruce tips anywhere, so that recipe was scratched from my mental menu. Although, one could use a handful of premature brown, hard tips and probably get the same flavour. There is a difference in sucrose production as the sap begins to run throughout the tree. I tasted the brown tips and they are very sweet.The earlier the sweeter I guess, but too early in the season is just too early, and I don't want to have to harvest more only to get the same effect as harvesting less later on. The tips are necessary for the tree to survive.

What about mushrooms.. maybe morels would be early? After an hour of investigating the spruce trees I went further into the park and more upland where the slope faces the south, the sun. I dug around the bases of the dead hardwood trees the way hungry squirrels do it. Nothing. At least nothing I know to eat. I looked a bit more upwards from the ground and saw some clingers on a stump, but they were not for eating and when I touched them they were frozen... old ones from last fall.

All of a sudden I felt eyes behind me and I turned around to see a native man in a black hoodie staring at me about 10 yards away. Smells like trouble. The homeless squat in the woods in Anchorage, while others hang outside the front of liquor stores asking for smokes often. If I was homeless, actually, I am somewhat until I get to Toolik... I would live in the woods and find a way to survive.

Anyways, my first thought was this guy was just observing me from behind, in the woods. Freaky. Stopping his gaze at me he looked down and laughed, then made conservation. A deeper look at him made me think that he's only a few years older than me. He asked me what I was doing. At first I didn't hear him. What you say? He lifted his arm up and pointed to the sky and asked, what... is... up? I said I'm looking for mushrooms. He goes, you're not from here are you? Depends on what you mean by 'here', I replied. He goes on to tell me nothing happens until May. I said that's what I thought given the only shrooms I found were frozen, but someone has to be first to find the first morel, right? His eyes were really squinted and direct.  He pulled out a cell from his pocket and started to text someone. I began to feel uneasy since I had been out in the woods for hours and was he stalking me all along? He looks up from his cell and asks if I have a gun. That's an odd question to ask in the middle of the woods. In Alaska if you're over 21 and don't have a criminal record you can own and a carry a gun, but I still felt this as a red flag. Should I have a gun? Time to bail. No words necessary, I smell trouble and my wolf-like instincts are never wrong. Without saying anything I began walking away as if I just confronted a bear. I kept a close eye on my back and no longer saw him once I got a hundred feet into the trees.

I quickly made my way out of the forest by tracking the snow prints I left behind while walking into the woods. I came to a bike trail and saw a few bikers and joggers in the distance. Didn't find anything to eat in the woods, but so be it. I set foot on the bike trail towards the main road and turned around a ways down just in time to catch a glimpse of the native man walk out of the woods to the creek across the bike trail. Another person came up out of the thicket along the banks of the creek. They were far away, yet after a second of looking back I saw the forest watcher point his hand towards me. I put my nose back to the trail and never looked back.

After a 10 minute jog I begin to hear traffic. I think to myself that the road is warm and maybe some spring greens are popping out of the soil. The soil.. is still frozen, everywhere. It's Alaska after all. I find a crick near the road and begin to walk it's banks. I spot some green shinning beneath a birch tree. It's beautiful baby plantain (plantago major) leaves... perfect for a garnish for some scallops. Plantain likes to grow near roadsides and has been used for centuries as a poultice to treat infected wounds. I decide to leave them untouched in case the film crew wants to see me pick them. Excited to have found something not frozen and edible (and medicinal) I head back to the city and detour to an organic food store where I buy the ingredients to cook birch syrup glazed scallops, tempura halibut cheeks, spaghetti squash fritters and sauteed garlic shitake mushrooms.

Walking back to the Inn from the store I notice winterized rose hips hanging on the bushes. I've used rose hips before for relaxing teas. I find their medicinal effects on my body are like passion flower and sedative. Parking lots here are surrounded by native trees and bushes for ornamental purposes, but they may also have edible and medicinal qualities to them. Shortly after the rose hip sighting I came across fir trees that have green tips. Awesome. If it comes down to it I could pick a few of these right along the road and toss them in a ACV vinegar reduction sauce while it's simmering just to give it an extra kick of spring flavour.

Back in my room I unpacked the food and put it along my windowsill, which is the way an Alaskan fridge works. Wild ingredients have been found, even if they are next to roads, and I've acquired ingredients to cook a variety of dishes, so, I only need a kitchen to perform at. I jumped onto my bed office and contacted everyone I know in Anchorage to see if I can use their kitchen to stage. I considered all possibilities, including, cooking at a local cooking school or asking a restaurant to borrow their kitchen after hours. All my buddies I ask didn't want to hassle with a camera crew, but were more than happy if I cooked for them. Sigh. There is a kitchen in the Inn I am staying at, but it's a very busy spot and super small. I spent hours emailing and calling around, in between contacting folks I drew up dish presentations and wrote out recipes for the menu items I want to cook.

This morning I woke up at 6:00 AM with no further luck in finding a kitchen to cook at. Have I let the producer down? Heck, I should have brought my 12" cast iron skillet. This way I could build a fire somewhere and cook outside. Real wilderness cuisine.

I read my only email in the inbox and see that the producer is going to pick me up in a couple hours to go to a fish processing company. He wants me to explore the ocean-to-table concept and all the elements involved. I ask if I should bring my ingredients and knives. He says sure, just in case.

I throw on my hoodie and boots and walk across the street to get a cup of coffee. Then I see a truck pull into the hotel parking lot. The driver smiles and waves at me. He rolls down the windows and asks, Cody? Yup. Jump in. He's not the producer, but is part of the team and lives in Anchorage. I get in and a dog named Buddy hops on my lap and starts kissing me. Hair everywhere, but I don't mind. I laugh and pet him. Not what I had expected, but totally feels normal. We begin to talk story about our lives and what we do. After a couple minutes of driving we pull into the fishing company. It's a small city. He says the film crew isn't there yet. I start getting a bit nervous as I see fish cutters behind the windows working quickly and folks walking in and out with fish boxes. What am I to say? How am I going to pull the answers out of the magic hat that the producer is looking for? A truck pulls in next to us with four dudes in it. They're here.

The producer steps out and shakes my hand and says let's go meet Skip the owner of the company. Skip was waiting for us. He is a smiley fellow with many stories. He tells us that the company has meat and fish lockers where locals and visitors can store their moose, caribou, halibut, black bear... even dog if need be. I ask if grizzly bear meat is a commonly stored item. He says no and that's because grizzly meat is far more fishy than black bear since black bears have a diet consisted of berries and vegetation whereas grizzlies tend to eat mostly salmon. I've tried grizzly bear (meat from the skull to be exact) while I was chef at the Dog Salmon Hunting Camp and it was rather 'stinky' tasting. While Skip is talking about the fish and game lockers I look around and see all eyes on us. Best I not look around I suppose. Welcome to showbiz. One of the cameramen pops his head through the door and says, let's get Cody Lee mic'd up. I walk outside and he hooks a microphone to my collar and puts the recorder in my pocket. He picks up the cam and asks me to walk to the door and enter. Let the show begin.

Once inside I greet Skip, again. Two cameras in action and dozens of eyes watching. I start asked a few basic questions. I feel rusty. It's been a while since I've been social, to say the least. Skip answers all my questions in absolute great detail and I think to myself that here's a true Alaskan. He loves what he does and chefs around the country depend on him for fresh Alaskan seafood. So much information is given in such a short time such that I don't know how to respond or where to go with the story in play. For instance, he tells me that in the wintertime king salmon can be caught, and can run for $40.00/lb at some retail outlets in the lower 48. I never even knew they fished for salmon in the winter. Where's that chalk board that has cues to what I'm supposed to say? I feel naked.

The producer jumps in and directs me to head into the cutting room with Skip. I walk in and confront Tito, the fastest fish cutter in town. He gives me a demonstration of filleting a king salmon. It brought back many memories of all the fish I filleted while cheffing at a fly-in Alaskan fishing lodge in 2012. Salmon is soooo good. I ask for a bite of it raw. He gives me a sliver. It tastes so greasy and I can feel the hit of omega-3s right away. I want more!!!

We move on to the packing room. I start feeling more comfortable and juiced. Maybe it's the king salmon running through my veins. I ask a bucket full of questions about the other types of seafood they handle and where it goes. I see shark listed on box and inquire. Tito explains that in southern Alaskan waters there's a shark that looks like a big salmon. Wow. I wonder what else is out there. After a bombardment of questions about the fish types and how they're packed Tito starts to look a bit tired of all the questions and Skip is eying me like it's time for them to really do some work. Okay. I get it. I wrap it up with some smiles and ending comments. Stayed tuned for ****** Alaska.

We're done with that segment.

Back in the parking lot the producer asks how I'm doing. I tell him I'm still waking up, but am getting there. Getting there somewhere.Getting to my core. Next stop is a nature park to do some biographical intro lines.

The driver takes me to Earthquake park, which is adjacent to two airports. A cameraman spots a twin cub flying overhead with snow/ice skis on it and he's like what the heck is that? He's from New York and I doubt they even fly float planes there, so a plane with skis would definitely be something different. I further explain that to get to Antarctica we cruise in heavy duty military aircraft that take off on wheels in New Zealand and land on the ice on skis. When the ski twin cub is out of ear sight I begin introducing myself to camera and tell the invisible audience what I'm doing here in Anchorage. My brain is all foggy. This darn cold. Why now? I haven't been ill for years and now this? I say time out and explain to the producer that I have all these thoughts in my head, yet they won't come out of a my mouth. I'm tongue-tied. He says, it's not about what I think, it's what's in my heart that matters. He tells me that he can read my passion for sustainable and wilderness cooking in Alaska in my emails and that I need to speak from within. He wants me to focus on how Alaskans rely upon the wilderness for sustenance. I love this sort of lifestyle. Love. My heart begins to open and the words start flowing out like melted butter.

My final statement was bang on and the producer gave me a high five. Bingo. A deep breath. Just breathe. Game on. Let's do more!!! I said I could for a coffee to warm up and all agreed.

We hit up a local coffee joint. At the counter the barista goes, so what TV show are you guys doing? Haha, are we that obvious? I take a look around and see locals dressed in their daily attire making easy conservation. They are all colorfully dressed, and we are decked out in total black with electronic gadgets hanging off our belts. A lady behind the counter calls my order for a dark roast black as black can get coffee. I pick it up and notice a massive map on the wall. I walk over to it and point out all the locations I've cooked at in Antarctica and tell stories that make them shrivel in their seats. I ask the table of TV people why no one has shot a series down there. One of them gives me his opinion and says he feels that there's not much of a human culture to capture on film, only penguins and snow, well yeah, but if he only knew what I've seen people do way down south. Right when I was going to tell him about the 300 Club the producer comes to the table and says let's roll.

The final shoot is at a food truck outside a big corporate building in Anchorage. There's at least two dozen customers lined up when we get there. It's rush hour lunch time. Dang. Well, let's eat lunch, too. We jump street to the Pita Pit where it's also bustling inside. We fill our holes with easy greasy goodness and share jokes. A camera dude spends the majority of lunchtime showing cool tattoos on his portable device to the other camerman across the table from him. You know what, these TV people are humans too. I give them credit for stepping out of the box and taking the time to capture what it is our culture is made up of. It feels like they are old friends from some long time ago in history.

1 o'clock... time to bounce. We pack up and leave. As we walk out the door I notice, again, that all eyes are on us once as if Elvis has just left the building. Walking back to the car I say to myself, I'm just a cook, father, husband and love nature...

Back at the food truck, there's only one lady in line. Looks like lunch is over and everyone is back in their cubicles. We meet the chef and toss a mic on her like it's no big deal. I'm told to walk from behind the truck to the counter and ask to see what's cooking. They tell me to count to 10 before I start walking. I walk behind the food truck and in the shadow begin counting to 10. Those 10 seconds felt like eternity. I can do this. This is what Anthony Bourdain and Guy on TV. Somehow they came to mind, though I don't have a television. Channel the pros I thought. I walk around to the front like I was a mission to unveil the best tasting dish in America. Is Chef Kathy around? She comes up the window. Hey, I'm Cody Lee, it's smells good out here, can I come in to see what's cookin? Absolutely come right on in.

Inside the food truck she gets right to cooking a salmon sandwich and while she's as busy as a bee I tap into her passions for cooking local food. We discuss Alaska's greenhouse farming and where the meat for the caribou burger comes from. I throw in some of my experiences as a chef in Alaska and what I know about sustainable cooking. We see eye to eye on this subject. The sandwich is done and she hands it to me. The grand finale I thought. This morning we saw the fish being filleted and now it's going into my body. Thank you Salmon. First bite and the sauce oozes out of the sandwich on to the floor and I munch away making primal grunts of pleasure. I describe the tastes and textures. It's very delicious and although I just ate lunch I could eat again.

After the salmon sandwich I ask for a caribou burger, which she calls a 'bou' burger. It's another masterpiece and tastes like a bacon melt patty with loads of hot provolone. In fact, when she hands me this one it was steaming so much in the cold truck that I have to comment on it. Despite being in such a small kitchen with a big hot griddle that takes up half the space it's really cold with the service windows open. You'd have to eat hearty burgers to keep warm I say on camera. Soon after I wipe the juices from my lips we conclude and end the shoot.

Outside the truck the producer says I did it. The truck scene came together so easy and it felt as if I have been working there for years. I owe it all to Chef Kathy, she gave us her free-time to show a few dishes and discuss Alaskan food with me in front of cameras.

They tell me that it's now up to the networks to decide what happens next. I bid farewell to TV team as they wiggle back into their fully loaded vehicle and I hop back into the truck with Buddy. Buddy's master drives me to the Inn and I grab my ingredients and knife bag out of the dog kennel in the back. He put the bag in the kennel so the dog wouldn't eat anything. I walk upstairs to return to my bedroom and put the bag down. I put the ingredients back on the windowsill. Well, I didn't need this stuff after all, but what did happen today was even better. Free food and I learned a lot about wild Alaskan fish and food. I even learned a few nuggets of lifelong wisdom about speaking from the heart.

Who knows what next?