In the kitchen with...

Chef Lionel Uddipa of SALT Alaska

Story by Amy Newman

Lionel Uddipa’s dish for the 2017 Great American Seafood Cook-off in New Orleans was more elaborate than what he normally prepares. The executive chef of SALT in Juneau skewered smoked Alaska king crab on blueberry branches, blueberries still attached.

Alongside it, a plate of risotto cooked in homemade halibut stock and fermented fish sauce, seasoned with black seaweed, and topped with freshly foraged sea asparagus, salmon eggs and a drizzle of vanilla oil.

But, the effort paid off. Not only did it net Lionel the crown (as the “King of American Seafood”), it caught the eye of celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. The chef came to Juneau in mid-February to film an episode for National Geographic featuring Lionel and Gordon talking Alaska cuisine and culture, picnicking on a glacier, and competing in a wilderness cook-off using only Alaskan ingredients.

Such a high-stakes, adrenaline-filled experience would rattle most people. But it’s that rush, which he first got a taste of as a high school kid working as a dishwasher at his family’s Valley Restaurant in Juneau, that first attracted Lionel to life as a chef.

“I liked the excitement and the fast pace of the restaurant, the sense of urgency that everyone has to help,” he says.

He briefly considered a career in social work before deciding to “just pull the trigger” and enroll in culinary school. He attended Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta, then worked his way around the San Diego area for several years. Wanting to explore his Philippine roots, he took time off and traveled throughout Southeast Asia.

“I didn’t know anything about my culture because I was so tunnel-visioned with French cuisine,” says Lionel, who moved from the Philippines to Sitka with his family at age 2. “I wanted to learn more about the food, the culture, and how people live life over there and make things happen with what they have. It was definitely the greatest experience I’ve ever had.”

He spent six months working in Chicago restaurants when he decided to return to Alaska. His brother put him in touch with Tracy LeBarge, owner of Juneau’s Tracy’s King Crab Shack, and together they opened SALT.

Although his background is in French cuisine, Lionel said his style shifts according to what he’s learning.

“Right now, it’s keeping it very simple and not doing a lot to really good ingredients – meaning keeping things really pure,” Lionel says. For example, curing salmon to eat raw rather than throwing it in the deep fryer.

Lionel likes to showcase local Alaskan food and forages much of it himself; what isn’t local is sustainably sourced. And since fresh and local is hard to come by in Alaska, he experiments with preserving spring and summer foods to have on hand in winter.

With experimentation comes some hits and misses. He’s had good luck preserving berries, brining them in a salt or sugar solution, using Tlingit and Japanese fermentation techniques, and making fish sauce from discarded fish parts and even chicken wings. Luck hasn’t been on his side when it comes to homemade vinegar.

“We’re still trying to figure it out,” he says with a laugh. “I’ll tell you our basement definitely does not smell good.”

But experimentation is part of the fun, and something the home cook can easily put into practice.

“Try new ways of cooking, whether it’s gently cooking the ingredient, or eating it raw if you can,” he says. Cook halibut gently at moderate heat for a longer amount of time or poach it, he suggests, rather than immediately tossing it on the grill or dipping it in beer batter before tossing it in the deep fryer.

“Just be open; search the internet or look at your favorite cookbook to find something that can be served differently,” he says. “You’ll never know what you really like or dislike unless you try it.”