In the kitchen with…

‘Delicious’ Dave Thorne

By Amy Newman

Not many chefs can boast that they cooked a private meal for the President. But “Delicious” Dave Thorne – the moniker comes from a friend who repeatedly declared, “That’s delicious, Dave!” – who manages TapRoot’s kitchen with chef Rob Kinneen, had that privilege during President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Anchorage.

True to his philosophy of preparing simple dishes that allow the flavors of the ingredients to shine, Dave created a truly Alaskan meal – moose, caribou, salmon and razor clams were accompanied by Alaskan-grown potatoes, beets and lettuce.

Alaskan Cioppino
Click here for recipe >>

“It was just real flavors,” he says. And it received the presidential seal of approval as well: “His plate was clean,” he says with a smile.

Unlike many chefs, Dave’s food journey didn’t begin in the family kitchen. Instead, it began when he enrolled in King Career Center’s culinary program during his senior year at East Anchorage High School. His motivations, he says, were entirely selfish.

“I was going off to college and I needed to cook for myself. And,” he adds with a laugh, “women like men who cook.”

But cooking worked its way into his blood and, coming “on the heels of Emeril (Lagasse) becoming famous and the culinary arts being cool again,” it seemed like a legitimate career. So when his instructor suggested culinary school, he remembers thinking, “What have I got to lose?”

Two years at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY gave him a crash course in all things food – from the history of gastronomy to French cooking basics, pastry to wine pairing. He returned to Anchorage after earning his associate’s degree to work at Jens’ Restaurant alongside late chef Jens Hansen. He says he still utilizes many of the skills and techniques he learned under Jens’ mentoring.

“He was very intricate and artsy and had a lot of knowledge,” Dave says. “I’m glad I started out with him.”

Knowing that “people need to eat everywhere,” Dave leveraged his cooking skills to indulge his passion for travel. Time spent in Germany and California, and given complete menu control while touring with Cirque du Soleil, Justin Timberlake, Jack Johnson and Neil Diamond, allowed him to hone his skills and experiment with new flavors and techniques.

A strong proponent of the “eat local” movement – Dave used to operate Alaska Root Sellers, which provided restaurants with Alaskan grown produce – his goal is to make dishes with as few ingredients as possible while maximizing flavor.

“Simple food makes delicious food,” he says.

One way to keep things simple, both in flavor and in time spent in the kitchen, is to experiment with spices and cooking methods.

“Change the ingredients,” Dave says. “Don’t change the whole repertoire.”

Swapping ingredients lets you continue to cook favorites – like a roast or chicken – but not feel like you’re eating the same dish every night.

“Change the spices to the East for some Asian profiles; sear meat on the stovetop and then put it in the oven for perfectly cooked meat with a crust,” he suggests. ”Braise a roast, put it in some broth and then pull it apart and add some coconut milk. Just have fun with food.”

Ironically, considering his primary motivation for enrolling in King Career Center’s culinary program was to learn to cook for himself, Dave says he doesn’t do too much of that nowadays. But when he does, he usually reaches for fresh seafood and in-season produce.

“I always go for seafood,” he says. “Every season there’s such good stuff. Whatever’s grown locally and wild, I like.”

With a 7-year-old son, Dave’s days of extended touring are gone; he’s still Neil Diamond’s personal chef, but tries to limit his road trips to 10 days. When he is home, the two often do what Dave never did growing up – cook.

“He loves to help,” Dave says. “We have a really good time in the kitchen together.”