La Baleine Café is a small, unassuming building near the end of the Homer Spit. It’s painted stormy sea-blue with a whale surrounded by bubbles. But inside, the culinary talent is obvious.
Mandy Dixon is the owner and chef of La Baleine. She and her employee and competition partner, Lucas Schneider, are in the kitchen, chopping, frying, stirring. They’re practicing cooking the dish they’ll prepare at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off.
It's homemade ramen noodles and broth with smoked salmon, salmon bacon, seaweed, sautéed vegetables, pan-seared sockeye salmon, fireweed honey, chili-marinated spot shrimp, alder-smoked sablefish, a king crab beignet and an herb salad on the side.
The seafood elements of this dish stand out. Vibrant pink fish, dark smokey fish, a curl of shrimp- all on delicately piled noodles immersed in a steaming broth. The presentation and supporting ingredients are deliberate.
“It’s a seafood cook-off. That’s what they’re focusing on," says Schneider. "They don’t really care about the vegetables or the smaller things. So, what we’re really trying to focus on is build up to the seafood because it’s the biggest part. So, we’re trying to pick things that will complement it without overshadowing it.”
They’re both surprisingly cool and collected despite the fact they’ll soon be preparing this detailed menu in front of cameras, an audience, and celebrity judges.
Dixon says she never even expected to have her own restaurant. Let alone be hand-picked for a national competition by Governor Sean Parnell. She says she’s come a long way since she first opened the doors to La Baleine years ago.
“We just kind of turned on the open sign and waited for people to come in," says Dixon. "It took a couple hours and then our first guest worked for Channel 2 news. They were doing a story on the bird festival. And he walked in and just casually ordered something and we were like…okay.”
It’s no surprise he's come back every summer since. The café has an interesting menu. At first glance, the dishes seem fairly ordinary. A deli sandwich, a breakfast skillet, a bowl of oats.
But the oats come with fireweed honey, the sandwich features rhubarb chutney and fromage blanc, and the breakfast skillet is spiced with coriander, cardamom and caramelized onions. Nearly every item on the menu has the word local.
“We’re passionate about sourcing local food," says Dixon. "I feel like everyone should know where their food is coming from. It’s so easy for us in Homer with the seafood being dropped at our back door from the fishermen and so many local farms. We have very fresh and mostly organic cuisine here.”
She tries to keep it simple and let the food speak for itself.
“We really take care of the ingredients, respect the seafood and really take care of it well and not add a lot of additional things to it," says Dixon. "We don’t need to.”
That’s the approach she’s taking in the cook-off. She says she wants to bring attention to the natural beauty of Alaskan seafood. And she hopes to educate people about sustainable fisheries while she’s at it.
“And I’m just really proud to represent Alaska," says Dixon. "I’m from Alaska. I’m looking forward to teaching people about Alaska and Alaska seafood. I’m also looking forward to Bourbon Street and checking out New Orleans. I’ve never been down there. And trying crawfish.”
As the final touch, she and Schneider plan to garnish the dish with unforgettable Alaskan flair: popping shrimp roe, fresh fireweed blossoms and appropriately, forget-me-not.