Sharing a taste of Alaska

Retired University of Alaska Southeast educator opens cooking school

Posted: Thursday, August 02, 2007

Retirement has given Laraine Derr the chance to work at what she really loves - combining teaching with the culinary splendors of Southeast Alaska.

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The former head of the University of Alaska Southeast School of Business and Public Administration has started up Chez Alaska Cooking School this summer to provide entertainment and education to visiting cruise ship passengers.

"I needed something to do," she said. "I needed a retirement job."

Derr, who also has 25 years experience as a caterer, decided to open the cooking school after participating in similar culinary adventures during her travels.

"I thought, 'if I'm doing this on vacation, it would be fun to do for other people on vacation,'" she said.

Derr secured a contract with Princess Cruises to advertise on their ships and opened the school in the Nugget Mall annex building in time to share the summer's fresh seafood that Alaska is famous for with hungry tourists from all over the world.

"What I hope they take away is the fact that buying Southeast Alaska seafood is a wonderful meal to fix when they get home," she said.

Derr said she hopes that teaching gourmet seafood recipes will also ensure that more of the fish exported from Alaska will end up being properly prepared.

"So to teach people to use our products and to use them well is what I really want to do," she said.

Boosting the local economy is another of Derr's goals, she said. She is employing five chefs this summer to teach a variety of classes, which range from 45-minute demonstrations to three-hour hands-on classes. Subjects include Alaskan favorites, such as shrimp, black cod, salmon, halibut and even sourdough pancakes.

On Tuesday, chef Derrick Snyder was preparing "Miso-Bronzed Salmon with Jicama-Daikon Salsa and Sake Beurre Blanc" for roughly two dozen students. Snyder combined colorful commentary with insightful instruction in the Chez Alaska kitchen, which could easily be mistaken for the set of a television cooking show.

It's not your typical cooking job, he said.

"This is possibly the best job I've ever had," he said. "It's fun. I get to crack jokes and things like that. It's very gratifying."

Questions were asked and tricks of the trade revealed during preparation prior to the presentation's climax - the taste test.

"The ingredients that went into here, excellent," said Al Knott, a retired chef from West Islip, N.Y. "There's a very unique flavor. It's completely different from the style of cooking on Long Island."

Knott said he decided to go on the tour, which includes a trip to the Mendenhall Glacier and a stop by the Alaskan Brewing Co., "to get a flavor of Juneau."

With more than 40 years in the kitchen, it's still nice to pick up something new, he said.

Snyder, the instructor, said he focuses on providing entertainment for the vacationers first and instruction second.

"Sometimes I'll give some secrets and if they can take that with them then that's great too," he said.

The business is making retirement anything but a cakewalk for Derr.

"I do the dishes. I sweep the floors. This year I'll do it all until I get to the point that I can make some money," she said.

Locals are also encouraged to attend the classes, Derr said. Sitting in on the 45-minute demonstration classes costs $15, while participating in the 3-hour hands-on classes costs $99.

Derr said she plans to hold more classes for locals later this year, including a canning and preserving class in September and holiday classes this winter. A small retail area for tourists and locals alike is open for browsing.

A Chez Alaska cookbook is also tentatively in the works, Derr said.

"It's great fun," she said. "It's a great retirement job."

• Contact Eric Morrison at 523-2269or

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