Meet the Chef Who Learned to Cook with Seal and Other Native Foods at Alaskan Hospital

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When Vern Luckhurst reflects on his time in hospital following a heart attack last May, he remembers the reindeer stew.

“I think for a whole week I was there, every day I had reindeer stew,” Luckhurst said. “They flavored it like you would cook it at home.”

At Alaska Native Medical Center, a 173-bed hospital in Anchorage, Alaska, native cuisine is at the center of the menu for patients. Depending on the season or what has been donated to the facility by hunters and fishermen, patients may eat seal soup, fig fern pizza, or herring roe with peas.

“They have great comfort foods for seniors, or just, you know, natives,” Luckhurst, 70, said. “Even though it was a low sodium diet, you know, it was still very tasty.

“They make really, really good salmon.”

Vivian Echavarria made this dish known as Indian ice cream, which traditionally contains some kind of drained white fish and lots of Crisco. Echavarria learned how to make it from her mother, but her version includes cranberries and a little less fat. (Submitted by Vivian Echavarria)

Hospitals aren’t generally known for having a memorable kitchen. But at this facility, the standard bland “food platter” has been cast aside in favor of a restaurant-style approach with a menu that offers patients choice.

At least 60% of these dishes incorporate indigenous foods. now the hospital traditional aboriginal food initiative is gaining attention as a model of what could be achieved in other hospitals in the United States and Canada.

Alaska Native Medical Center is Anchorage’s only hospital and the state’s only trauma center. Although the focus is on the Aboriginal population, the center serves patients from all walks of life.

The standard hospital tariff was rejected

When Vivian Echavarria took over as assistant hospital administrator, she saw how that food tray was missing its target.

Vivian Echavarria, vice president of professional and support services at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, oversees food service at Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. (Submitted by Vivian Echavarria)

“As I looked at the amount of food that was thrown away because it’s not the food our people eat, I saw a lot of money flowing away,” said Echavarria, who is now vice president of the professional and support services at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which includes the hospital.

When the food services contract was finally renewed, she demanded that the next contract include an executive chef.

“There had to be someone who had the culinary depth, the scope, the breadth to be able to prepare food the way you would see [on] these chef programs on national television,” she said. Not reserved host Rosanna Deerchild.

Enter Chef Amy Foote. Originally from Idaho, Foote worked seasonal jobs in Alaska as a teenager and met her husband there.

Then his career took them to restaurants, hotels and lodges in Montana for about a decade, “while dreaming of how we could go back to Alaska,” Foote said.

“It’s a huge reward”

She jumped at the chance to pivot to the role at Alaska Native Medical Center, a move that Foote said was incredibly rewarding.

“You can cook a really good steak in a four-star restaurant and…it’s a unique experience,” she said. “But when you’re working in a hospital and you have this opportunity to feed someone who may not have eaten for a few weeks or even days, and help them on the road to recovery, on his return home and to their lives, it’s a huge reward.”

Cooking for Alaska’s native people isn’t a unique proposition, Foote said, given that there are 229 recognized tribes in the state spread over a wide area.

“So if you’re in the north, you’re not going to eat the same food as you are in the southeast because the animals, plants and geography are different.

“And so it becomes a real challenge to learn about everyone’s traditional ingredients, traditional harvesting methods, traditional preparations, and then figuring out how to get all of those ingredients to Anchorage.”

For Foote, picking and gathering for the hospital’s traditional Aboriginal food initiative is year-round. Here she is pictured with the fruits of her labor picking crabapples. (Submitted by Amy Foote)

Since many of the main animal products cannot be purchased from the usual food suppliers, the traditional food program relies on donations from hunters and fishers, and they must follow strict guidelines in regarding food security.

Learn to work with the seal

“Coming to Alaska, one animal that I hadn’t worked with obviously would be seals. We don’t have those in Idaho and Montana,” Foote said. “So it was a definite learning curve.”

She found advice from some of the indigenous women in the kitchen staff who have experience in slaughtering the animal.

“Seal meat is very dense and it’s almost like an organ and you can kind of look at it and see how nutrient dense it really is.”

Jessilyn Dunegan, a nutritionist at the hospital, said seal soup was her favorite traditional comfort food.

“There’s something about seal oil that, once it hits your mouth…seems to soothe you from the inside.”

“I think to some it might sound like grandma’s chicken noodle soup.”

A small fatty fish called a hooligan is prepared for elders at the Alaska Native Medical Center. (Submitted by Amy Foote)

Providing foods that motivate patients to eat and regain strength is even more crucial given the distance many patients travel to seek treatment and the visitation restrictions imposed by the pandemic, Dunegan said.

Traditional foods themselves have properties that can aid healing, she said.

“So if we eat seal oil or herring roe or something like that, it’s very high in omega-3 fatty acids, which gives you very good anti-inflammatory properties and many other health benefits.”

At the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, Foote, center, and Echavarria, right, receive moose meat donated by retired NFL player Joe Schuster, who now sits on the board of administration of the Alaska Professional Hunters Association. (Submitted by Amy Foote)

A few Canadian hospitals have also adopted traditional Aboriginal cuisine. Yukon hospitals have been serving traditional cuisine for 25 years.

And in Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario, the Sioux Lookout Meno Ya Win Health Center serves wild game, which is prepared by the elders in a separate kitchen.

At the Alaska Native Health Center, Foote said he observed a kind of spiritual and physical healing by feeding patients this way.

“There’s the act of giving, the beauty of being able to feed someone… of giving an elder who just wants a bowl of seal soup because that’s the only thing they could eat that day- there. So there’s a lot of things that I love about my job.”


Written by Brandie Weikle. Produced by Kim Kaschor and Erin Noel.

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