In the kitchen with…

Chef Naomi Everett of Lucy's

Story by Jamey Bradbury

When you sit down to a fine dining experience at Lucy’s, you’re not just eating dinner, you’re eating someone’s homework. Lucy’s is the instructional laboratory for students enrolled in the University of Alaska Anchorage’s (UAA) Culinary Arts, Hospitality & Restaurant Management program, where they get hands-on experience developing a menu, doing food prep and negotiating a hectic kitchen. At the center of the chaos is Chef Naomi Everett, who does her best to control her “control freak” nature.

Oven-Roasted Stuffed Alaska Halibut
Click here for recipe >>

“When I started teaching, I had to learn to pull back and let them do their thing,” Naomi says of the students who take her culinary skills development and advanced classes. “They’re going to make mistakes – that’s how they learn.”

Naomi never meant to become a teacher. As soon as she graduated from culinary school, she went to work at the Millennium Hotel (now Lakeshore), where Chef Alex Perez mentored her. Later, she joined the Marx Bros. Cafe as the sous chef before expanding her palate in Italy, New Orleans and New Mexico; in each new locale, she discovered flavors and freshness she couldn’t find in Alaska. “My first great tomato was on the back of a boat on the way to Greece,” Naomi shares. “It was like, 'Oh, my gosh, this is how it’s supposed to taste!' ”

She also gained enough experience to take on the role of executive chef for Marx Bros. at the Museum upon her return to Alaska. She held the position for three and a half years and then worked as the executive chef at Settlers Bay Lodge in Wasilla for two years before her former teacher at UAA, Jean Bokman, fell ill and asked Naomi to take over her classes.

“When I first started, I was pretty rough around the edges,” Naomi recalls. As a chef, she was accustomed to shouting across a kitchen and swooping in to correct mistakes before a plate hit the dining room. But as a teacher, she learned to let her students correct themselves.

She understands how intimidating a professional kitchen, like the one at Lucy’s, can be for her students, who can be anywhere from 18 to 65 years old.

“They’ve cooked their whole lives and they know how they do it at home,” she explains. “Then they come into my classroom and I tell them they’re not standing right, they’re not holding the knife right, and it’s really defeating.”

Students in her advanced class gain confidence by taking everything they’ve learned and applying it at Lucy’s. This semester, the student-developed menu includes a charcuterie appetizer plate that features duck prosciutto, shiitake marmalade and warm stuffed sage with brown butter mozzarella; a pancetta salad topped with a poached duck egg sprinkled with porcini dust; and dong po pork belly and seared Chinese five spice rubbed pork tenderloin, served over kimchee-style vegetables and steamed rice.

The pork dish was devised by a student from Vietnam who wanted to incorporate Asian flavors into Lucy’s menu – something that Naomi encourages.

“Every single menu, there’s some influence from the students’ personal life experiences,” she describes. “They’re very excited about and proud of their heritage and culture, and I love that. I want to eat food made by someone from that part of the world because they know how that food is supposed to taste. Without having to travel, you get the benefit of diverse food.”

Taking a menu from a hodgepodge of ideas to something that can be cooked and plated in six minutes is a challenge unique to restaurant kitchens. But even the home chef can learn something from the techniques Naomi emphasizes to her students.

“I think planning, temperature and seasoning are all important,” Naomi says. Knowing the right temperature at which to cook your meats, for instance, can make the difference between tender, flavorful pork and a dry hunk of meat. Reading a recipe at least three times before you start cooking, in addition to chopping your ingredients before you start cooking, can save time and prevent mistakes.

And, she says, don’t be afraid of salt. “It makes the biggest difference in the world. It’s night and day.”

Her best advice, though? Don’t be afraid to experiment. That’s how she developed her oven-roasted stuffed Alaska halibut, which combines brie and crab with fresh fish. “I was told it’s taboo to put cheese with fish, and I was like, ‘What? I don’t agree with that!’ ” she says. “It’s got such a nice flavor. Sometimes you get a wild hair, and you should just go for it.”