Kale yeah! Sitka chef is among 4 Alaskans nominated for prestigious James Beard awards

Renee Trafton
Sitka chef Renee Trafton is one of four Alaskan semi-finalists for the prestigious James Beard Award. Trafton opened Beak in 2017, and has made the best of her unique situation: Creating award-winning cuisine on an island with some amazing benefits, and some practical challenges. (Katherine Rose/KCAW)

When I meet Renee Trafton on a Monday, it’s a day off at Beak, so the restaurant is empty, and we have our choice to sit at one of a handful of mismatched tables. She chooses a black-and-white striped rectangular table in the corner of her restaurant, next to a 100-year-old wooden piano. She says table eight is where most people sit if they have a choice, next to the window where there’s a slight view of the water.

“One of the times Mary Peltola came in, she sat right here,” Trafton said. “She got the cod tips. It was her second time coming in. The first time she got them with her daughter, and I don’t usually serve them at lunch. But she asked and I had them so…” she adds, and laughs.

She opened Beak six years ago, just before the start of the summer season.

“It was such a tenuous-seeming endeavor,” Trafton said. “Many people try to open restaurants and they fail. And I’ve just been working really hard. And to get this type of national recognition is unbelievably amazing.” 

Trafton is among three Alaska chefs and one restaurant owner named semifinalists for a prestigious James Beard awards. The other two chefs are Beau Schooler of In Bocca Al Lupo in Juneau and Nathan Bentley of Anchorage’s Altura Bistro. Trafton, Schooler and Bentley are all nominated in the best chef of the Pacific Northwest region category. Laile Fairbairn, of Locally Grown Restaurants, is nominated for outstanding restaurateur. She co-owns Anchorage restaurants Snow City Cafe, South Restaurant + Coffeehouse and Spenard Roadhouse.

For Trafton in Sitka, her cooking journey started with making food for friends at Oberlin College. She was a dinner cook there for two years. When she graduated she considered culinary school, but it was expensive, so she decided to get some experience first just to get a taste of the profession. She moved to New York and ended up working for a couple of Michelin-star restaurants.

“It was a really formative experience. It was really exciting to learn about fine dining and all the many, many rules of it and sort of the focus that the chefs out there have,” Trafton said. “And I think I’ve definitely taken that focus and trained it on the ingredients I have available to me here.”

Trafton says in the last six years in her own place, her culinary voice has strengthened. And she’s learned to adapt to the challenges of operating a restaurant on an island in Southeast Alaska.

“In New York City, you can call at 10 o’clock at night, and then at, like, 8 o’clock in the morning you have whatever produce you want. And here it’s a week out,” Trafton said. “So when I was designing my menu, from the beginning I would pick things that I think would survive the the barge journey up here…potatoes, carrots, onions, kale, kind of the hardier items.”

While she can’t get all of her produce locally, she has access to the freshest fish imaginable, and her menu centers around it. Over the years she’s been able to cultivate relationships with fishermen. She can have 1,500 pounds of salmon, halibut, black cod – and even gooseneck barnacles – in cold storage, and knows exactly who caught every pound and where it came from. With that, she’s able to take barge potatoes and kale to new heights.

“I can really transform them from something you just buy at the grocery store that’s, you know, not that exciting but with technique and time and a lot of effort,” Trafton said. “The transformation from raw food to dinner is, for me, it’s always been a magical transformation. And I think that’s what makes Beak really special, is like how much thoughtfulness we put into our food here.”

Renee Trafton
In 2018, Trafton showed KCAW how to make her massaged kale salad-– it’s been a staple on her menu since Beak opened. (File/KCAW)

So who inspires her in the kitchen? Trafton names a few chefs, some she’s worked for, some she hasn’t. And René Redzepi comes to mind: he’s the chef at Noma in Copenhagen, which is considered the “world’s best restaurant” by many.

“He does a lot of like, hyperlocal things in Denmark, and that’s not the most stereotypically bountiful area. But the idea of sort of a thriving within your confines,” Trafton said. “Finding inspiration in what you have– I’ve also felt a lot of inspiration with that.” 

Redzepi made headlines a few weeks ago when he announced that Noma would soon close its doors. He said fine dining is “unsustainable” in its current form. And in pop culture, movies like “The Menu” and the hit TV show “The Bear” reveal a darker side of the industry.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the James Beard Foundation this year is looking for chefs that set high standards with their culinary skill, who also contribute positively to their communities and make efforts to help create a sustainable work culture. That was Trafton’s goal from the beginning. Beak is gratuity-free, and it was always important to her to make sure there wasn’t pay disparity between servers and kitchen staff. She says she’s always tried to hone a culture of respect and positivity in her kitchen.

And music helps too. Trafton says in the last few years, her team has started singing along to the radio while they work.

“It just kind of lightens the mood. Because you’ve got a zillion things to do, and orders are coming in…and everything’s happening. But if you’re singing along to the radio, it makes the team feel more united and lighthearted, so you don’t get bogged down. It keeps the vibe energetic and happy instead of frustrated,” Trafton said.

“Being upbeat is super important for me,” Trafton adds. “And I think that is not generally the case in kitchens. But this is my kitchen, so I want to be happy.”

As for the future of Beak, Trafton is excited to be busier than ever following the announcement from the James Beard Foundation. But she says her goal isn’t to turn a lot of tables. She just wants to have people over for dinner, and make them food with thought and care. 

Editor’s Note: Trafton is one of 20 semi-finalists from the Northwest and Pacific region. In late March, the James Beard Foundation will announce the top five nominees from each category. View the full list of nominees here.

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