Concern for the future of clean water in Southeast Alaska brought together two seemingly unlikely groups – chefs and activists. Naturally, food was involved.
Salmon Beyond Borders, an organization that defends transboundary salmon rivers from mining effects, joined forces with the Rookery Café this week to welcome celebrity chefs from across the nation. The goal for this two-night experience was to put local salmon in acclaimed hands, showcasing bounty from Alaska waters, while sharing stories of how such bounty can be lost forever when mining disasters strike.
Melanie Brown, a local commercial fisherwoman, hosted the welcome reception Wednesday in her home for chefs Ryan Lachaine from Houston, Rickie Nakano from San Francisco and David Varley from Seattle. After putting on display meals made with local seafood and charcuterie from Panhandle Provisions, she gave the chefs and more than two-dozen guests in attendance a mission.
“Spread the good news of Alaska when you go back home,” Brown said, adding that the event was meant to highlight what Alaska has to offer while reminding everyone what is at stake. “We don’t mean to focus on the negative; we want to focus on the bounty and keeping it bountiful.”
Many in attendance Wednesday were there to testify to the devastation felt when conservation efforts do fail. The Mount Polley mining disaster last August that released billions of gallons of toxic tailings and contaminated water into the Quesnel Lake watershed was a prevalent topic, while focusing on the potential dangers facing the Stikine and Taku rivers since the Red Chris Mine opened in the transboundary Stikine River watershed.
Jacinda Mack from Xat’súll First Nation in British Columbia, Canada, shared her story of loss from the Mount Polley disaster with those in attendance, but she also highlighted hope found in efforts like the one on display by chefs and local members this week.
“I think it’s amazing that these chefs have come in to make this connection and to bring that back (to their hometowns,)” Mack said. “By sharing a meal together, we’re sharing these stories and these experiences together.”
This community-style meal turned campaign for conservation was born from an idea by Beau Schooler, head chef at the Rookery Café, to bring talent from the Lower 48 to Alaska to dine and discuss local food. When Juneau activists heard about it, the two joined forces to create a meal with meaning.
“It started as just a food thing,” Schooler said. “If we could do something that would attract this much attention, we might as well have a cause behind it.”
Schooler said he hoped to turn the dinners this week into an annual occasion, continuing to raise national awareness to an issue close to the hearts of environmentalist and food lovers alike.
All of the visiting chefs spoke Wednesday about how moved they were by the passion from the community to protect local food sources. Varley, the head chef of RN74 in Seattle, said this local cause was a matter for the whole nation to consider.
“America needs to understand that Alaskan fisheries and the health of that resource and the health from headwaters to the sea is very impactful,” he said. “Alaska is an amazing place with amazing people who obviously care and who are way ahead of politicians in Washington.”
Thursday, the visiting chefs and Schooler switched roles with their host and put on an eight-course dinner at the Silverbow Inn to continue celebrating Alaska seafood and to discuss the future of transboundary efforts; a future Mack said goes beyond the next meal.
“When our great-grandchildren come to us years from now and say, ‘What did you do? You were alive when those (Sacred) Headwaters were threatened. What did you do to protect us?’ What is the story you’re going to tell them?” Mack asked the chefs and community members. “I want to be able to say ‘Everything I could.’”