JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - How seasoned does a chef need to be to start a business or receive an award? Some might consider the culinary and entrepreneurial minds behind some of Juneau’s hippest restaurants green, but they’re ready to prove otherwise.
GonZo AK in Auke Bay
“Being younger chefs, we can put in more creativity and innovation,” Aims Villanueva Alf said about starting one of Juneau’s newest restaurants.
She and her husband, Alex Alf, have started GonZo AK in place of the Southeast Waffle Co. in Auke Bay. They still serve waffles, but little on the menu resembles what was served under past ownership.
“We’re still keeping the chocolate chip waffle and regular waffle, but I need people to understand there’s a plethora of other flavors they can be exposed to,” Villanueva said.
The menu is as colorful as the dishes it describes, with a rainbow of chalk handwriting telling customers about “The Hunter S. Swampson” - it took home first prize at BaconFest this year - and “The Spunky Monkey.” One waffle features boneless short rib, sweet potato and miso, among other ingredients. A recent dessert waffle called “Unicorn Tears” is an explosion of sprinkles, dulce de leche, Nutella ganache and other sweet treats. There’s waffle under there somewhere.
The pair didn’t choose waffles out of convenience - the kitchen was a shell when they took over, Villanueva said - but because waffles happen to be a wonderful vehicle for the flavor combinations they love to experiment with.
Villanueva grew up in Juneau and left a couple times, but she was drawn back, along with Alf. She left most recently to go to school, but discovered she would get more valuable experience working based on the skills she already had. She met Alf while working as a sous chef at Full Sail Brewing’s Hood River pub.
Alf was raised in a small town in Wisconsin and grew fond of gardening and cooking at a young age. He enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu to pursue his dream of cooking for a living and worked at a number of high-profile restaurants in Portland.
“Then I met this beautiful girl Aims,” he said.
They moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to help one of his friends open a gastropub, each gaining more experience and education, but eventually realized Alaska was where they needed to be. Villanueva has a young daughter in town.
An offer to work at Panhandle Provisions brought the two to town, and they helped build up the deli’s charcuterie and refine the dessert menu before Villanueva said they decided to start up a restaurant of their own.
When they found out the Waffle Co. was for sale, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
“It happened fast,” Alf said. “Three weeks. We decided to quit our jobs, we took the risk and three weeks later bought it.”
Now they’re shaking up Auke Bay with their wild flavor combinations.
“Buy the ticket, take the ride,” Villanueva said.
There are a lot of references to Hunter S. Thompson.
They plan to change the menu frequently and will host some ticketed course dinners in the future. They’re proud to serve organic ingredients and local foods like their Swampy Acres eggs.
A rising star
Beau Schooler may be one of Juneau’s most well-known and established chefs at only 29, but there’s a whole world outside that may get to know him as a rising star.
The Rookery Café chef was recently nominated for the James Beard Rising Star Award.
James Beard was a Portland, Oregon-born cookbook author, teacher, columnist and media personality and was known for mentoring generations of professional chefs. The James Beard Foundation was founded in his honor, and an annual awards ceremony is held each May.
Beard Awards honor excellence in cuisine, culinary writing and education in the U.S. and even being nominated is kind of a big deal.
People have asked why he doesn’t take his skills down south, Schooler said, but he is happy to do his thing in Juneau - “It’s not like I’m ever gonna win a Beard Award,” he used to say.
“Kind of funny I’d end up on the list for that,” he added.
It’s not that Schooler isn’t confident in his abilities, but that he sees “lots of room for improvement.”
A constantly rotating menu at the Rookery gives him plenty of opportunity to try new things.
Finding out he was up for the award was an emotional moment, just maybe not the emotions others might expect.
“More like disbelief,” he said. “Or at this point more curious. Excited, but curious.”
He’s wasn’t even certain how he was nominated.
He also doesn’t know what the next steps are.
“Gabe Rucker from Le Pigeon, a friend of ours, he won Rising Star and for a couple years Best Chef Northwest - he has no idea how it works,” Schooler said. “Either nobody knows or they won’t tell.”
The nomination is an honor, but may also add a little pressure for the Rookery kitchen.
“We might be judged a little more harshly now, or something,” Schooler admitted, though he didn’t indicate it would cause him to change the path he’s set for himself and the kitchen staff - “trying to develop and grow and be better.”
The newest venture from the Rookery crew is The Taqueria, located on Marine Way. It’s actually the result of some steps toward opening an Italian restaurant in the future.
“We always wanted to do an Italian restaurant,” Schooler said. He’s studied in Italy a couple times. “We bought Samovar’s to get the beer and wine license, but then had to use up the lease.”
At the time they bought it, the spot that had once housed Paradise Café and most recently a Russian dumpling shop had started serving tacos. They stuck with Mexican food, keeping the kitchen staff with longtime cook Jose Torres in charge. Torres has cooked for the Rookery and ran El Zarape’s kitchen in the past.
“Jose would make us a family meal, for the wait staff,” Schooler explained. “His Mexican food was better than anything else in town. I had joked we would open a taco shop . and had the opportunity to make it a reality.”
It’s been more popular than they expected.
While it may seem the Rookery has a golden touch, Schooler said with assurance that is not the case.
“We had a chowder shack. It was terrible,” he said. Business was terrible - but their attempt to market directly to tourists failed at the same time Panhandle Provisions was flourishing, so they decided to “stick to doing things for the locals.”
The process of obtaining and running the Taqueria has been “a whirlwind,” Smith said.
“We’re still trying to figure out what exactly our summer plans are going to be,” he said. “But everybody loves tacos.”
Added Schooler: “If we’re doing so well in the middle of winter, there’s no reason to change that much.”
Luke Metcalfe, who has taken on managing the Taqueria, said for the summer they’ll have to make some changes to take advantage of their tourist-friendly location, but that may just mean adding more seafood options and maintaining the flavors of Mexico.
Torres learned to cook from his family - his mother and his sisters - he said. The cuisine isn’t specific to a particular region of Mexico, but it is traditional Mexican cuisine.
The menu features an abundance of tacos, with a little something for just about everyone. For the local food lovers, there’s the Pescado, piled high with Alaskan true cod, cabbage slaw, pecan salsa and lime. For the adventurous eater, there’s the Lengua - that’s pork tongue. The Barbacoa and Pastor have been popular, and for the vegetarian there’s the Verdura, featuring daily fresh vegetables.
In addition to tacos, there are a variety of other traditional dishes, including tamales, flautas and chiles rellenos.
When asked to pick a favorite, Torres shyly responded, “everything on the menu,” but when pressed, said for him it’s the chiles rellenos.
To wash down the spicy fresh salsas - there are mild options too - the Taqueria offers soft drinks and beers, imported and domestic, and wine. Metcalfe anticipates they’ll be the first place in town to serve Pacific Northwest wines on tap, an option they’ll have available soon.
“You’ll get good wine from the Northwest at a reasonable price,” Metcalfe promised.
Some might frown at the traits commonly associated with youth - impulsively opening a restaurant or shunning traditional flavors - but these young restaurateurs and chefs show that fortune favors the bold.
Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com
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