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One on One: Joël Chenet
Chef-Owner, Mill Bay Coffee & Pastry, Kodiak, Alaska
By Steven Hedlund
August 01, 2008
"We always joke that the main way people in Kodiak like their salmon is bargecued. Put a piece of salmon on the grill, put barbeque sauce on it and drink a beer, and you're done."
Joël Chenet's culinary résumé reads like a well-worn passport. In his native France, Chenet cut his teeth in the kitchens of numerous three- and four-star hotels, including one of the original Relais & Châteaux properties, and was honored as the country's Best Young Chef in 1967. He went on to work in England, Switzerland, Germany, South Africa and even Madagascar, where he escaped the political unrest that led to the overthrow of the country's first president, Philibert Tsiranana, in 1972.
In 1975, Chenet left the Eastern Hemisphere for the United States, where he was the chef for French President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing during the U.S. bicentennial. He stayed in New York as the chef of the French Consulate and then as sous-chef of The Pierre. When the hustle and bustle of Manhattan wore on him, Chenet moved to tranquil Stowe, Vt., to help open the kitchen at the first U.S. Relais & Châteaux hotel. He remained in New England, cooking at properties operated by Dunfey Hotels (now Omni Hotels) in Boston and then on Cape Cod, replacing Emeril Lagasse, who had departed for Commander's Palace in New Orleans. Next, Chenet was a restaurant consultant in Syracuse, N.Y., and then executive chef of the Buffalo Club in Buffalo, N.Y., the country's oldest private club.
These days, Chenet, 60, can be found in Kodiak, Alaska, where he's resided for the past 10 years. Chenet owns Mill Bay Coffee & Pastry, which, despite its name, is known for its seafood just as well as its coffee, which is roasted in-house. He also runs a seafood catering business with his wife, Martine, also a native of France, who he met at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
In May, Chenet was named "Ambassador of Sustainable Seafood" at the 2008 Cooking for Solutions at California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, after being selected by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to represent the state. At the two-day event, he participated in numerous cooking demonstrations and competitions with other renowned chefs. For one Iron Chef-like competition, Chenet and his culinary cohorts had just one hour to prepare dishes using Alaska sablefish, learning only as it began what seafood they would be cooking. Chenet captured an originality award for his creativity.
When Chenet isn't promoting the sustainability of Alaska fisheries on behalf of ASMI, slaving away in his restaurant kitchen, catering a seafood dinner or traveling, he's probably volunteering. Last month, he prepared about 300 seafood meals for the Wounded Warrior Project, which brings disabled veterans to Kodiak every July to sport fish and relax. I caught up with Chenet in early July.
HEDLUND: Has food
always been a part of your life?
CHENET: Yes. My parents owned a hotel-restaurant, so I was born into it. But that was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an artist. I did all the paperwork to go to art school. I wanted to do bronzes. But my dad said, "No way. You get a job, and then after that you do whatever you want."
When did you learn about seafood?
When I was growing up I was bored and had nothing to do, so I went to work in two different fish-processing plants. I wanted to see what it was like, so I did everything from cutting fish to packing it.
How did you end up in Kodiak?
When I was at the Buffalo Club one of my former apprentices from Vermont, who had [moved] to Alaska to open a coffee shop in Kodiak, asked me if I could help him get started. And I had three weeks' vacation, so I helped him. I [returned in each of the next] three years, and finally I fell in love with Kodiak and moved there.
What's the menu like at Mill Bay Coffee & Pastry?
It's a typical coffee shop, with breakfast pastries, French pastries and cakes. But at lunch I do about 12 items, and my specials are always seafood - salmon, halibut, whatever I can get straight off the boat. And about 90 percent of my catering is with seafood - salmon, halibut, scallops, cod, rock bass. Right now I'm doing a lot of salmon because it's in season.
Are people in Kodiak creative with seafood?
We always joke that the main way people in Kodiak like their salmon is barbecued. Put a piece of salmon on the grill, put barbeque sauce on it and drink a beer, and you're done.
Are Alaska fisheries among the world's best managed?
Yes, they are. But consumers are just beginning to catch on to [the sustainable seafood movement].
Describe the Cooking for Solution's Iron Chef-like competition.
It was fantastic. It was a blast. That was the longest and shortest hour I've ever cooked. It was a lot of pressure. Alton Brown and Sam Choy walked around joking, and it can distract you. The secret ingredient was black cod [sablefish]. We roast our own coffee here, so I said, "Well, I'm going to do something with coffee." I ground coffee beans with coriander and made a rub, which I put on one side of the fish, and I cooked it in a pan. Black cod is very oily, so you don't have to cook it for long. I made a sauce with white wine, coffee beans and cream. It was sweet and tangy. It was quite an interesting combination. The judges loved it.
Describe your volunteer work with the Wounded Warrior Project.
We have the first group of 30 veterans coming July 16 for one week. Then we have a week off, and then we have another group of 30 veterans coming. I'm going to feed them seafood. I do four meals for them, and they fish for five days. It's an eye-opener when you see [the disabled veterans]. They're from all over [the United States], and they all talk about their injuries. It's amazing. [Last year] one guy was missing his right arm. He was right handed, so he had to learn to lead with his left hand. But he fought off a 100-pound halibut. He was sweating. But he was so happy.
Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be e-mailed at email@example.com