In the kitchen with…

Chef Justin Persons of The Double Musky Inn

Story by Mara Severin

For people who love their professions, being at work means feeling at home. For Justin Persons, executive chef of the Doubly Musky Inn in Girdwood, it's more than just a feeling. Justin was literally raised upstairs from the dirt-road gem and spent his youth washing dishes, busing tables and chopping vegetables at the fast-paced iconic restaurant. "It's in my blood," he says. "I was always part of the restaurant."

Even as a baby, Justin was an integral part of the culinary scene. "The fact that my parents used a potato box for me as a crib next to the stove when they first started cooking, I'm sure had some deep rooted influence on me," he says.

It's no surprise then that after receiving a business degree from the University of Nevada, he would decide to continue his education at Le Cordon Bleu Western Culinary Institute. His past was in the landmark restaurant's kitchen, and he decided his future would be too.

When Justin came back to Girdwood, he brought with him an arsenal of new skills, an encyclopedic knowledge of wines (they've quadrupled the wine list and been recognized in Wine Enthusiast and Wine Connoisseur magazines), and a refreshingly humble attitude. "My feeling was, 'If it ain't broke don't fix it,'" he says. "I expanded the menu a little bit but kept everything that helped make the restaurant what it is." For the Musky, that means using "the Cajun trinity" of onions, bell peppers and celery, which Justin calls the cornerstone of the restaurant's cooking. "I use time-honored methods and recipes," he says.

Not that you won't notice Justin's own personality on the menu. Like this past summer's special: an orange Cointreau glazed salmon with a tropical salsa using fresh jalapeno, mango, pear and kiwi. Or this autumn's beef rib special Brasado al Barolo: a rich, savory dish with a rosemary chocolate sauce. Not tempting enough? "I serve that with a bacon and parmesan cheese polenta," he adds. OK, tempting enough now.

"I believe in taking ordinary ingredients and making something extraordinary," says Justin. "That's cooking and being creative. I don't confuse creativity with unusual ingredients. I also don't chase trends."

But it's not all culinary self-expression and fine wines. If you've ever eaten at the restaurant, then you know that the dining room is packed, the bar festive, and the wait a tad long – like a really good party with a few crashers.

In the kitchen, which turns out 350 meals a night, the atmosphere is one of "controlled chaos," says Justin. He's extremely proud of his crew – just a three-man line and a back-up cook – and a baker who is "the keystone to the operation," he says.

"Each man has a tremendous workload," he says. "To work at the Musky, you have to be an absolute rock star."

For anyone who's ever tasted the restaurant's rich gumbo or fiery pepper steak, it's no surprise to learn his favorite cooking motto: "Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon."

Justin credits his parents Bob and Deanna – the restaurant's founders – with creating the magic that first drew crowds, but he can surely take credit for keeping them coming back. "There's a certain Musky mystique," he says. "There's the 35-mile drive, the turn down the bumpy dirt road… but it's the food that brings people," he concludes with satisfaction.

Visit Chef Justin and the crew at the Double Musky Inn, Mile .3 Crow Creek Rd., Girdwood, 783-2822