t seems impossible that a restaurant like The Saltry in Halibut Cove, Alaska exists. It sits on a remote island on the edge of the wilderness, perched atop 25-foot tall pilings on a weathered wooden boardwalk. In this part of the world, the tidal changes are dramatic. Twice daily the ocean heaves deep breaths; exhaling out of Kachemak Bay, to reveal water banks rich with grey mud, spotted with the occasional bright orange starfish or large boulder covered in neon algae. Soon enough the banks are quenched again and at times the water rises so high that you can see it glimmer between the planks on the boardwalk.
The journey to The Saltry is a long one, requiring two, if not three plane rides from the Lower 48. A large plane takes you to Anchorage. From there a smaller plane bounces you to the tarmac in Homer, Alaska, where the airport is so small that you can likely hitch a ride home from a neighbor. A short drive later leaves you at the Spit, a unique finger of land that extends into the Bay, creating a natural harbor for the couple hundred commercial fishing boats that call it home. Kitschy shops and chowder houses cluster at the end of the Spit. In the winter the wind whips violently. Snow piles on the boardwalk and chunks of ice wash against the rocky shore. Only the hardy crab fisherman remains, but the summertime is a different story, and that’s why we’re here.
The chef, the baker, the bartender, the farmer and the celebrity server. We make our way to Slip One where the Danny J is docked, awaiting our arrival. She looks beautiful. Every spring Marian sands her down and christens her with fresh evergreen colored paint. Every brass fixture shines, and, just like every year, I quietly admire the graceful line that draws from bow to stern. We load a summer’s worth of luggage onto the deck and Marian expertly navigates us out of the harbor and into the bay, directly toward the dot that is the lighthouse on the other side.
Michael Rooney, the bartender, is the newest member of our crew. Today, he’s the Bar Director and the third man to celebrity chef Amar Santana’s growing restaurant empire. Vaca opened its doors in Costa Mesa in 2015 and the waiting list grew and grew, and didn’t stop growing. But before Rooney was a celebrity bartender, even before he was a member of our small restaurant crew in Alaska, he was just a guy, living in Orange County. He had a job as a technical writer that he didn’t like very much, a hobby blog called Liquid Culture, and an encyclopedic knowledge of the finer points of booze. He was 29 at the time and wanted nothing more than a life outside of four walls. When the chef — his best buddy from Dana Hills High — offered him a job in Alaska, he didn’t look back.
Now, on the deck of the Danny J, he finally breathed in deeply. The late spring Alaskan air touched parts of his diaphragm that hadn’t felt the air in years, and he wore a silly little smile of someone who just figured it all out.
The lighthouse, on top of the knoll near the cemetery, grew in our vision from a small dot to a large edifice. I can see a few coves away from the lighthouse a peek of Glass Beach. Soon enough, after the restaurant opens, we’ll have enough bottles to break against the rocky cliff. After long, 16-hour work days, it’s our release. We grab a bottle of Dickel and roll some tobacco; we load up the skiff with heavy trash cans full of glass recycling, and putter to the hidden beach where we smoke cigs and drink whiskey and huck bottles at the cliff walls. The Bombay Sapphire bottles always make the prettiest shards, and I’d like to imagine that a 100 years from now, someone will sail by this beach and catch a glimpse of its blue glass and come closer to find a beach full of sea glass pebbles; a sparkling pirate’s bounty.
Soon enough we pass the lighthouse and enter Halibut Cove through The Narrows. Portside, four little cabins also suspended on 25-foot pilings, come into view. I point out the first cabin to Rooney, that cabin is yours, I tell him. Shortly after, Marian’s art studio, and her husband Dave’s tool shop come into view as well. A wisp of smoke comes out of the chimney at the art studio. Marian was most likely painting with oil before she remembered that she needed to cross the bay to pick us up. I can imagine her racing down the steps with a stride impossible for 65, meanwhile hollering to Dave, I almost forgot to pick up the kids, I’ll be right back!
Further down, the fish smoking shack and then the pottery studio enters our vision. Somebody accidentally left the door ajar to the pottery studio and even from a distance, I can see the big kilns. These kilns have fired every hand-painted dish at The Saltry for the past 30 years. The really old dishes have faded over time. If you flip them over, you can see the inscription etched into the clay. Dave and Marian, it’ll say, followed by the date; 1984 for the really old ones; 2013 for the ones made our year. There’s still likely a five-gallon bucket by the door, filled with broken plates from our clumsy handling the year before. Once the buckets become two, Dave will build a table and add on metal legs. Then he’ll carefully arrange the broken pieces into a beautiful mosaic to create a one of a kind table on which our diners can feast. Nothing in Alaska is wasted.
Then, of course, The Saltry restaurant comes into view. The swooping roofline is hard to miss. The locals once called it the Flying Nun, and, just like every year, it takes my breath away. It was the top of a houseboat before Dave and Marian Beck bought it in 1984 to house their new restaurant. They had to wait for the highest tide of the year, 23 feet, to stack it onto its pilings. Still, to this day, it sits slightly cattywampus.
Dave and Marian Beck are artist-fishermen, not restaurateurs. But after the Valdez Oil Spill decimated the Alaskan fishery in 1989, they needed another source of livelihood. So they built the Halibut Cove Experience Gallery to showcase their art, and the art of their friends and they gussied up their fishing boat to ferry passengers from Homer to their island in Halibut Cove, in what they pitched as a nature tour with art. However, time passed, and they needed a bigger draw to book tickets, so they built a restaurant and named it The Saltry.
The history of The Saltry restaurant is rich down to its bones. It’s like a blank canvas repurposed over time, painted colorfully, then whitewashed by neglect, only to be revived once again by a different generation in a different time. Halibut Cove, and more specifically, Ismailof Island, where The Saltry restaurant sits, was once home to a thriving herring fishery from 1911-1928. Mainly Scandinavian men came to mine fish gold, and they erected saltries across the Cove to salt their catch to ship back home. Years went by, and the water became so polluted that the fishery died. Halibut Cove was a ghost-town and stayed so until Marian’s father Clem Tillion homesteaded it 1948. They recycled wood from the old saltries and out of it they hand-built their home and long boardwalks around the islands’ rocky shores. And so, from this tradition, it was only fitting that Dave and Marian named their restaurant The Saltry.
At first, the fare at The Saltry was simple; Hot chowder with smoked sablefish, a warm Saltry bun, and a few morsels of pickled salmon was all that was offered. At the time, Marian helped with seal rehabilitation for pups who lost their moms in the spill. There’s still a big hole in the boardwalk near the cabins where the pup’s tank used to sit. She formed a special bond with one pup, Spot 99, and for a while there, it was just Spot and Marian in the kitchen, cooking comfort food for anyone who ventured across the bay to eat it. Spot would flop about at her feet, while she danced around the stove top. Every once in awhile he’ll still pop up his head up at our dock. He’ll look around like he’s looking for Marian, and if she isn’t there, he’ll dive back down into the deep cold water. Unless we go to the other side of the island, we may not see him again for the rest of the summer.
Expertly, Marian slides up against the dock, and the Farmer, Greg hops out to tie her up. We’ve arrived. If I look straight up the ramp and to the right of the restaurant, I can see the double stacked ovens, outside, right next to the grill. They’re still covered up with a grey tarp, just like I left it last September. As the baker, this is my office. Imagine that, an outdoor bakery. I think of all of the windowless kitchens I’ve worked in my life, and I too smile, a smile just like the smile I caught on Rooney; a smile like I’ve just figured it all out.
Soon enough, I’ll be waking up early to make three types of bread; molasses millet Saltry rolls for table service, rosemary focaccia for the sandwiches, and demi baguettes for the Banh Mi. I mix my dough, one after the other, then feed my biga and set it aside for the next day. Sometimes, in the morning, the kitchen is too cold for my bread to proof, so I fill every pot with water and boil my little nook in the kitchen into a warm sauna, and then finally my bread rises. Soon enough the rest of the crew saunters in and the kitchen feels warmer. We drink tar coffee with evaporated milk. Somebody makes family breakfast from our mise-en-place and then we polish silverware and have a quiet moment before the frenzied day begins.
For better or for worse, today The Saltry is decidedly more sophisticated than it was in its early days. We define our cuisine as artistic and healthy, from our land and ocean, with Pacific Rim inspirations. Our signature appetizer has a sampling of Alaskan Side-Stripe Shrimp Poke, Pickled Red Salmon, and Smoked Salmon Pate. We serve The Saltry Ramen with Black Cod, Sambal Oil, and Sous Vide Hen Egg. We braise our octopus and serve it with kale grown by our Farmer in our organic garden. Most of my crew is Montage Resort trained— culinary savants I plucked from my time working at five-star resorts. They easily succumbed to my tales of this impossible restaurant that my older sister introduced to me many years ago; a restaurant on the edge of wilderness where we can create beautiful food, and drink whiskey, and ride horses and play like pirates. The Saltry has seen teams come and go. Some are classically trained, some are not. Some people stay for ten years, some leave after only a season. This particular team holds shiny degrees from places like the French Culinary Institute. We quote Daniel Boulud and drink our fair share of Fernet Branca after a long night. Our dishes are balanced and composed and plated with a professional, dexterous hand. Our vegetables grow in our garden behind our restaurant. Dave and other local fisherman supply our fish; halibut caught on a long line; salmon; reds and kings, rockfish too.
Every once in a while a fisherman will tie up to our dock and bring us the prize catch; a White King Salmon. We hook it onto the scale, the fisherman gives us a fair price, and Marian buys it instantly. The chef breaks it down on the stainless steel fish table outside. The flesh is fatty and very pale pink. He tosses the guts over the ledge, into the water and the bald eagles swoop in so close that we can see their talons. Our restaurant guests go crazy and rush out to see the show. Camera clicks fill the air, and they book another dinner the following evening just to try the White Salmon special. When all that remains is a carcass, I’ll take a spoon and scrape out the tender flesh sticking to the ribs. Alaskans call it spoon meat, and that same night I’ll cook it with the fish collar and make fried rice with the leftover sushi rice. Once the Danny J leaves, we’ll abandon cleaning up for a moment, and we’ll sit around the campfire together to eat. Rooney will mix us our favorite cocktails, like the Danny J Rye, which he has since renamed The Last Frontier; now a Vaca Restaurant staple.
Back at the dock, we unload our luggage. Dave has dollies waiting for us to help haul everything up the steep ramp. It’s low tide. I tell Rooney, we’ll be doing a lot of this. In no time at all our soft winter bodies will become fit from hauling countless cases of liquor and 50-pound bags of flour up the steep ramp. By the end summer, our arms are toned, Rooney even jokes that it’s the first time in his life that he’s ever had a six-pack. Life in this part of Alaska revolves around the tide. I keep a tide book right by the phone, and if I can, I try to plan the shipment of our food and liquor orders at high tide when the ramp is level and easy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Our very first order is enormous and too much to cart by dollies up the long ramp. In this case, Dave positions his fishing boat, The Creel, alongside the boardwalk near the winch lift, and we load our larder into big, clean bags meant for huge catchments of salmon. One person hooks the four corners of the bag together; another controls the lever. Noisily the winch lifts the bag, and once it’s level to the boardwalk, we slide it over, unload the pile, and start over again.
Once we’ve settled into our tiny cabins the Chef, Eric, and I give Rooney a tour of the island. We wear Xtra-Tuffs to keep our feet warm and protect us from the spring mud. We climb up behind the restaurant, past the garden and water tanks that pump water from a spring on the other side of the island, closer to the glacier. Its Rooney’s job to ensure that the intricate pumping system doesn’t go dry. I tell him this, but nothing phases him at this point. He just smiles. We duck under the fence near Dave and Marian’s house. It’s almost time for the horses to come in. I can imagine Marian hollering from her deck, Horses! Time for dinner! From a distance, you can hear them gallop from one end of the island, straight into the paddock.
We hike up to the noll, near the cemetery and lighthouse. Marian’s mom Diana is buried here. She was the matriarch of the island. A beautiful woman, who just like Marian could probably fix a diesel engine and create a magnificent painting in the same breath. In Halibut Cove, they leave the best view for their deceased. The bay stretches into the distance, Homer, is on the other side. Mt. Iliamna, an active volcano is easily seen on a clear day like this. On the opposite side is an expansive view of the Cove. Docks and homes line the waterway. Even still, the population is only 100 people when everyone is home. There are no cars in Halibut Cove, only boats, so at any given time, the air is quiet and peaceful. There’s a scrappy clearing of earth in the distance to land a plane, but most people here have water planes instead. Where the water opens up, we can see The Bates’ oyster boat. They’re likely tending to their farm. Their small kids Rockwell and Vera, are likely helping too. Sometimes, when they don’t have time to deliver us our mussels and oysters, Sarah Jane (one of our celebrity servers) and I will hop into the skiff to jet to their farm. Most times I forget to take off my apron and it whips in the wind. The brisk wind stripes our cheeks crimson. Sarah Jane mans the outboard standing because the tide is low and we need to read the water so we don’t hit rocks. The water opens up and we try to remember which buoy to go to. Then we find it, and hand over fist, I hoist up large bags of mussels and oysters, that we’ll prepare, just in time for lunch. Saltry restaurant
Even farther in the distance is Grewingk Glacier where Rooney will one day, by himself, travel by kayak to collect glacier ice to make glacier martinis. He’ll come eye to eye with a black bear, when from then on, for reasons much more than encountering a bear, his life will never be the same. We circle the island and come to the Field of Dreams. Four months will fly by; I tell Rooney. The seasons in Alaska are intense. The winter is long and dark, but as soon as summer hits, life is amplified, like it has catching up to do. Nature bursts with a vibrant fury, knowing that it’ll be cold and dark soon again. Our garden grows enormously. We work, tirelessly, fueled by the never-setting sun. Once the last boat has left, and the kitchen is mopped, we drink whiskey and ride the horses around the island. Sometimes, a boat will radio our kitchen to let us know there are whales in the bay. So we all pile into the skiff and jet into the middle of the bay. We’ll cut the engine and rest our heads in each other’s laps and listen to the woosh of whales exhaling around us. Saltry restaurant
Soon enough the season will end and the entire community will meet at the Field of Dreams for our annual baseball game and potluck. Marian’s father, the venerable Clem Tillion, will approach the pitcher’s mound and throw the first pitch— a good size salmon. We all chuckle at the tradition. In his deep baritone voice, he yells, play ball! The little kids race about to find our fly balls in the bushes. Then they’ll get distracted and start to pick raspberries that paint the hillside pink. It seems impossible that a place like this exists. Our collective smile cinches everyone together and holds on tight. We’ve seemed to figure it all out. And the game goes on.