The popularity of cooking shows like PBS’s The Mind of a Chef might suggest that Americans are interested in becoming better cooks. If your culinary learning curve has plateaued, you may want to try a new approach. Rookery head-chef and co-owner Beau Schooler is gaining a reputation for seasonally creative cuisine. I joined Schooler in the kitchen one afternoon and he describes one of the restaurant’s special menus.
“We pickled some grapes with chai tea, and we’re doing that with corn flakes and blue cheese. And we got that bacon panna cotta, we’re doing that with passion fruit and avocado,” says Schooler.
Schooler looks at home in the kitchen. Among his many tattoos is a diagram of a pig that shows the name of each cut as “good” and “very good,” and a large knife with the words “mis en place”—French for “everything in its place.”
“And then we’re doing a pork schnitzel that’s encrusted with corn pops with a corn pop ice cream,” Schooler continues. “That one is getting paired with this Octoberfest kind of style beer which has this kind of honey-sweet corn notes, which is why we went with the corn pop crusted pork schnitzel kind of idea.”
Schooler says his eyes were opened to thoughtfully produced cuisine when he was a teenager. He was working at Anchorage’s Glacier Brew House and tried the seared salmon with coconut rice.
“Sometimes food’s a necessity and you’re just eating it because you need to eat, and other times you’re eating you’re getting enjoyment out of it. And that was when it dawned on me that you could have this food that would bring you so much joy and happiness was this piece of seared salmon.”
Since then he’s worked as a prep cook, a line cook, a sous-chef, and studied in southern Italy. But keeping things fresh takes more than that.
“Everybody that works here tends to be big on reading cookbooks, or reading on-line, or checking out what other restaurants are doing. We find these ideas that we like to try them ourselves. I think a big part of it is not being afraid to mess things up. We want to try things and see how they turn out,” Schooler says.
Part of the team that helps keep things fresh is cook Rachel Barril. She stands at an industrial stove searing duck livers for a duck liver whipped cream to top a gruyere cupcake. This is the kind of dish Schooler promotes.
“He pushes you to be more creative, to up your level technique-wise, creatively–that’s just the kind of chef he inspires us to be,” says Barril.
Downstairs in the Seward Street restaurant I run into Stefani Marnon, who just finished lunch. Also known as “Chef Stef,” Marnon has cooked professionally in Juneau for some 16 years and frequents the restaurant.
“The things that I love about his menus is they reflect the seasons,” says Marnon.
I am surprised she doesn’t mention the menu’s diversity. When I ask her if Schooler’s style is considered “fusion,” she cringes. The word fusion is a label and is “90s,” she says, and should be avoided. While his menus might include kimchee, fondue, ramen, and Cheez-its, it also benefits from using locally sourced food like prawns whenever possible.
“I just have Beau make me his prawn dish because I know where the prawns are coming from and I know that they’re great. So you know the stuff is fresh, and I know we hear that all the time, ‘oh it’s in season,’ but it truly is a marker of time looking at Beau’s menu,” says Marnon.
Chef Stef also likes the Rookery’s optional communal-style seating, the affordability, and that among all the creative dishes, there is also a delicious burger for those times when you just want a burger. Speaking of meat, when I ask Schooler what’s next on the menu, he says he’s excited about their home-made charcuterie.
“Terrines and cooked sausages and stuff, and that’s been really fun just because it’s really kind of scientific–like understanding the whole process and proteins and lactic acid and all that, and growing this like beneficial bacteria and creating these cured meats,” Schooler says.
And when the charcuterie becomes routine, Schooler will try something else new. He says that when something becomes repetitive, we stop paying attention to the details.