In the kitchen with…

Chef Al Levinsohn

Story by Mara Severin

Recipe: Cream of Butternut Squash Soup
Recipe: Gorgonzola Fondo

"I couldn't draw a picture. I couldn't paint," recalls Chef Al Levinsohn, reflecting on his early youth. "My art form was food," he says. But unlike most artists, the award-winning chef and owner of The Kincaid Grill and City Diner doesn't toil at his art in obscurity. In fact, with a weekly feature, "Cooking with Chef Al," on Channel 2 KTUU, and a recent cookbook of Alaskan cuisine, Chef Al is as close as it gets to a home-grown culinary celebrity.

Early adventures in eating

Chef Al's love for good food is, in part, a family legacy. Growing up in Southern California, his father was in the restaurant business and also traveled frequently. "One of the best things about traveling with him was going out to restaurants," he recalls. "Our family ate out quite a bit. My parents' rule was, 'Order what you want, just eat what you ordered.'" This leads Chef Al to recall a dish of abalone that he ordered from the Velvet Turtle, at a rather tender age. An order of oversized sea-snails? Young Al was definitely not ordering off of the children's menu.

The apple may not fall far from the tree. On a recent visit to Charlie's Bakery with his youngest daughter, she chose pork/shrimp meatballs over the more prosaic potstickers. "She also likes the pork/shrimp crystal dumplings with cilantro," he says. "At 15, she has a really good eye." No abalone yet, he says, but "she did eat a raw oyster at Southside Bistro when she was four years old."

Cooking and cooking and eating and eating … all day!

Early restaurant experiences, a family culture of good food and a penchant for home economic classes ("which meant meeting girls,") set Chef Al's career in motion. In the mid-70s Chef Al came to know a family friend who was a cook on the Alaskan pipeline. "He was from Texas and he had the accent. He'd say, 'I'll be whipping up a big old supper.' He would cook and cook and he would eat and eat and I thought, he does this all day!" he remembers. "Seeing that was a big deal."

It didn't hurt that he also had a self-described "knack" for cooking. "I just stuck with it," he says, with undue modesty.

A quick ascent to the (literal) top of the mountain

Once the culinary die was cast, Chef Al "moved up rather quickly." After working in Seattle hotels in his teens, he became a sous chef at the prodigious age of 18. In his early 20s, he moved to Alaska and began work at the Captain Cook under Chef Jens Haagen Hansen (now of Jens' Restaurant).

Chef Al's culinary experience in Alaska reads like a high-end travel guide: The Crow's Nest restaurant, the Clarion and Alaska Regal Hotels (as Executive Chef at age 23), the Alyeska Prince Hotel (including the Four Diamond-rated Seven Glaciers Restaurant), the Glacier Brewhouse, and at last, The Kincaid Grill, his own restaurant.

"I was in the right place at the right time," he says, taking a down-to-earth view of his rapid rise to the top of the Alaskan restaurant industry. "I was fortunate to have (arrived) here 25 years ago when there was not a whole lot going on in the restaurant world. Years ago," he says, "the palette wasn't so sophisticated. I had a lot of opportunity to bring new things to people who hadn't seen them before."

For example? "I was doing fusion back before fusion started," says Chef Al. "The first time I worked in Hong Kong was in 1993, so when I came back to Alaska, I would do king crab with black bean sauce. Or I'd do crispy coated salmon – similar to how they would wok-fry – in a cornstarch slurry."

Think layers and think comfort

For Chef Al, the key to delicious food is layering – both textures and flavors – to create balance. "I almost always like to have something crisp on a dish." At the City Diner, for example, "The bread for the Reuben sandwich is crunchy in contrast to the tenderness of the corned beef."

Layering flavors, he explains, allows each ingredient to shine in a dish. "I like to give the flavors a chance to pop." He elaborates, "I don't like to cover up the clear flavors of each food."

With summer winding down, Chef Al was turning his thoughts to his cold-weather menu. Butternut squash, hazelnuts and mushrooms are on the list of his favorite fall ingredients. "We'll do heartier dishes – risottos, soups, and things like that. My favorite foods are comfort foods: great pot roast, braised short ribs. A good beef stew. Good chili."

Passion, poetry and pizza

Chef Al's list of favorite ingredients and dishes could go on. "I get really passionate once I start talking about food." Passionate? Poetic, even. Food, he says, becomes art "when it has the heart and the soul" of the chef.

In his home kitchen, Chef Al describes his favorite piece of home cooking equipment – his wood stove. "I use it more than I use my regular stove," he says. "Last night it was raining outside, so I made a nice fire of applewood and grilled steaks right in my kitchen. I'll cook pork ribs in it. I'll do pizza parties for my daughters and their friends. I'll use it to cook the Thanksgiving turkey and the Christmas prime rib."

From king crab for connoisseurs to pizza for teenagers, it seems that success hasn't changed Chef Al. "My passion for cooking and to please my guests has always been my reward."