Michael Callahan is the executive chef and director of foodservices at the 50-bed regional hospital in Yukon Kuskowim Health Corporation in Bethel, Alaska. The hospital serves a nearly 100% native Alaskan population, which created some culinary challenges for Callahan when he moved from California.
What lessons have you learned since moving to Alaska?
Keep it simple stupid. I do a lot of high-end cooking and catering at restaurants. I had a little bit of a wake-up call. I had to readjust a lot of my mindset. I’m still a chef who likes fresh and local. We are getting a local community garden this spring. It will be a 20 x 15 foot greenhouse that will allow me to grow fresh herbs and vegetables all year round. I’m not losing touch with my freshness but things are a little bit more difficult up here when you’re 200 miles away from civilization.
They’ve had a mandate from the hospital’s board of directors to do a subsistence diet for a couple of years now. It wasn’t until I got here that we started really implementing it. I’ve been here about 15 months. This is a rural hospital and I would say that except for the people who are imported for service work, we are 100% Eskimo Alaska natives. It makes sense to serve them food that they are familiar with and comfortable with.
What experience do you have with hunting and gathering?
I like to fish. I never had enough opportunity. Hunting, I’ve always wanted to but never had the opportunity. I go out hunting as frequently as possible. I go several times a month, depending on the weather and what’s happening. The salmon are always running and it’s almost caribou season. The natives mark the seasons by when the smelt start running. They know that when the smelt run, then a few weeks later the salmon will start running. We have a few different types of salmon that run at different times. After the smelt run, then it’s pretty much the time when the birds start returning. Then it’s the king salmon and the silver salmon. Towards the end of the summer, the caribou will start returning back into the area.
How do you incorporate the subsistence foods in your patient menus?
From the most basic hunter/gatherer thing, we gather a local herb called Labrador tea or tender tea and make a local tea out of that. Most everything that the natives eat and prefer are boiled dishes. Because of the remote location and history they don’t get a lot of seasoning and spices. The foods will be more on the bland side compared to what people in the lower 48 would expect. We do caribou soup and fish head soup. Sometimes we’ll do fried foods, especially fried bread. It’s a yeast bread that’s fried almost like a doughnut but not sweet.
We are moving toward an everyday paradigm with offering subsistence-type foods. Right now we are in the process of constructing a subsistence food processing facility. I would say it’s the only one of its kind in the country. We will be able to process and store salmon, caribou and most wild game for use throughout the year. It will be a nice size facility with huge freezers. We do have a limited amount of freezer space right now. Our menu is salmon heavy. As far as being able to house game birds and the four-footed critters, that’s been more of a challenge.
I don't do any marketing with local products right now. The patients just assume that it’s local. I’ve only been here a short amount of time and working with the corporate procedures here is a little bit difficult to make carte blanche changes. When I got here it was pretty much a standard trayline service for patients and we are moving toward more of a room service aspect where I will be able to offer the patients what they want. I’ll be able to have a couple of different subsistence-type foods available.
Are there any inspections or extra steps you have to go through to serve these subsistence foods?
We have an exemption through the federal fishing and wildlife department that allows us to be able to serve this wild food here. It is not inspected. However, I am a certified food safety manager and instructor so I’ve had experience with meat processing. I know what to look for. If there is a problem with the salmon, freezing it at a certain temperature for a food days takes care of that problem. Cooking to a proper temperature also eliminates the problem. Generally speaking, it’s not an issue.
Do you offer subsistence foods in the retail operations or only on the patient menus?
We do offer subsistence-type foods in the retail operation. We have a contract with a local commercial fisherman so that we can bring in salmon to the cafeteria at a reduced price. The cost here in rural Alaska is just amazing. Surprisingly, until I got here nobody was buying local salmon. So any salmon that you ordered from a local grocery store would have come from Seattle or somewhere even though it was an Alaskan salmon. The cost was a little bit exorbitant. You go to our local store and you see king crab legs for almost $30 a pound and you don’t pay that much down in the lower states. In order to facilitate a subsistence diet for our primarily native outpatient patients who come into our café had been a challenge.