Gustavus Inn: Cooking Locally and Sustainably, Alaskan-Style

When you’re a forager in Alaska and nature gives you spruce tips, beach asparagus and bull kelp—you make dinner. If you’re a talented chef, that dinner isn’t something you douse with salt and choke down; it’s enough to win you a James Beard Foundation Award.

That chef is Dan Lesh, and his restaurant, the Gustavus Inn, won the 2010 James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award, confirming the excellent reputation it had earned for cooking and hospitality, and signifying the success of a family dream begun forty-nine years ago.

“It started with my grandfather’s vision,” Lesh told Calmful Living. “He left his medical practice in Cape Cod, bought a school bus, and with his wife drove the family, which included eight kids aged two to seventeen, to Alaska. He didn’t have a clear plan other than wanting to return to nature and find something more meaningful to him. So, he ended up settling here in Gustavus [which locals pronounce ‘Gus-TAY-vus’], where he and his wife, Sally, who has since passed away, started the Gustavus Inn, a hotel and restaurant, in 1965.”

Alaskan Food Outpost

“The Gustavus Inn was the first inn in our town,” Lesh explains.
“Visitors were generally work crews and people coming to see Glacier Bay National Park, which has grown into a big tourist destination—and there’s a lot of fishing too.” Lesh adds, “We’ve been out here all along, growing our garden and cooking our food. We don’t have to advertise a lot; people keep coming back and they tell their friends.”

The thirty-one-year-old Lesh was already a keen cook when he began cooking at the Gustavus Inn. “Alaska is unique in the degree of protected lands and the health of the environment,” he continues, “so the bounty of the sea and land makes it a very inspiring place to live and cook.

“I grew up eating the best food in the world, which was something I just took for granted at the time,” says Lesh. “After going out to enough restaurants, I realized I had standards that were unattainable unless I myself started cooking.”

Focus on Foraging

A big part of cooking, for Lesh, has also meant foraging and growing what he would cook. “Where you live is also a deciding factor in what you’re going to be eating. I happen to live in a place that’s full of great food, and we like to share that with our visitors.”

Meals at the Gustavus Inn revolve around ocean catch brought in by the fishing boats and food that is grown on the inn’s grounds or foraged locally in Glacier Bay’s unique soil.

Foraging is not hard to do in Glacier Bay. “The population density of humans is low, so it’s possible to live off the land,” says Lesh, “and you know what you get is going to be clean, fresh and yummy. Right now we’ve got nettles coming up. In a few weeks we’ve got spruce tips from the spruce trees that we make into a syrup and serve at breakfast.

“I pick beach asparagus as well, which we serve as a vegetable on the table. We’ve also got a type of seaweed called bull kelp that we pickle and serve at dinner every day. And there are mushrooms that we collect and use as part of various dinners, mostly porcini and golden chanterelle.”

Lesh explains that beach asparagus doesn’t really look like asparagus; “however, it is vertical on the stock and succulent in appearance, with a good salty crunch. It tastes like a mild green, but it’s the salty crunch that’s really nice.

“I’m also passionate about live, cultured food,” states Lesh. “I’ll take that beach asparagus and mix it with some garden vegetables and peppers and ferment it. I really enjoy the combination of using microorganisms plus time to do your cooking.”

Dessert items come as well from the bounty of Glacier Bay and the Gustavus Inn garden. “We grow our own rhubarb, and we’ve got our own raspberries, wild blueberries, currants, and quite a few berries that aren’t well distributed around other parts of the world but are very tasty.”

Little Inn, Big Award

It was straightforward meals like these that took advantage of Glacier Bay’s pristine soil and proximity to the sea that won Gustavus Inn the James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award.

“We didn’t even know what the James Beard Foundation was before we got the award,” Lesh discloses. “Our whole family went to the awards in New York City, and the experience was quite cool. It was nice to see all the different places get the recognition they deserve, places that are creating the unique textures of America’s culinary landscape.”

Lesh points out that the America’s Classics Award recognizes the accomplishments and reputation of a restaurant over a period of time rather than its status at any particular moment. “My dad is the driving force behind the kitchen and the menu as they look now. I may have been cooking when the judges visited, but it’s unquestionably the work of my mother and father.”

Syncing with the Seasons

Meanwhile, far from New York City, the yearly cycle in Gustavus, Alaska, continues. “It’s spring now, and we’re busy getting the garden going, and my dad has already bought ten king salmon and smoked them in the smokehouse for the summer. We’re turning the compost in the garden and getting the starts going.

“Summertime is very compressed for us. June, July and August are our season. It’s intense and busy, and we work really hard. In September things begin to wind down. It’s one of the favorite times of year here. There’s a lot of mushroom and berry picking, hunting season starts, and that’s when our family tends to visit from other areas. We also have a few ‘Inn Nights,’ where we invite locals to come eat at the restaurant.

“And then in the wintertime the inn is pretty much shut down. I live here with my partner and work with the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, helping to protect and advocate for the wild places in this region. My mom and dad are busy with the business side of things, reservations and stuff like that.”

Meanwhile, Lesh’s grandfather continues to fulfill his dream. “He’s ninety-one and still lives in our small town. He has no health problems and still grows his own garden. He’s working in the greenhouse today, I’m sure.”

To learn more about Gustavus Inn, visit www.gustavusinn.com