Behind the scenes - and the dishes - at Starfire restaurant in downtown Skagway.
Starfire owners Judd Davis and Jeffrey Hitt take pause on their outdoor patio just before a busy lunch service begins.
Pictured here is Pork Prik Khing, a Thai dish of seasoned ground pork made with whole green beans and julienned galangal root, served with shredded carrots, sliced cucumber, rice and pickled onions.
Story last updated at 3/6/2013 - 1:41 pm
Judd Davis isn't stupid. Neither is his food.
Along with Jeffrey Hitt, Davis owns Starfire restaurant in Skagway, a venue that specializes in Thai food and is somewhat of a regional culinary institution.
"I'm not going to dumb down the food," Davis said, while taking a break from chopping meat and vegetables in preparation for a busy lunch rush last summer. "The American palate is more educated that most people think."
And these "most people" are the thousands of tourists being off-loaded into Skagway every day in the summer, for plates of fish and chips.
"A lot of Thai restaurants down south westernize it; take some of the flavor out," Davis said. "I want true authentic Thai food."
But to meet this desire requires some extra steps; he can't just dispatch an employee to the specialty store down the block for lemongrass. We're talking Skagway, where, if you're lucky, you might have two options of toothbrushes to choose from at the sole grocery store.
Davis does have his own herb garden in back of the restaurant, but, as Thai dishes rely heavily on aromatics, he simply can't grow enough of what he needs. He grows eatable flowers: nasturtium, pansies and calendula as garnish, as well as rosemary, oregano, sage, marjoram and thyme, but the kitchen blasts through 10 pounds of fresh basil per week.
And if he's correct, if the American palates coming off those ships, flocking from Whitehorse and Haines, know their Thai food, Davis and Hitt can't play them for fools with dried flakes of green herb. They have to have it fresh.
"The quality of fresh herbs and chilies are such a huge part of Thai cuisine," Davis said. "I pay a lot of extra money to offer them. There are a lot of cheaper versions, but I don't want to do that."
For fish dishes he'll often substitute a more regional fish such as rockfish or salmon for a warmer water fish traditionally used in a particular dish. Davis estimated that his kitchen processes 40 pounds of chicken, 10 pounds of beef and 20 pounds of shrimp every week. They order their food 10 days ahead of time, which is tricky.
"You have to predict how busy you're going to be," he said. "That's really tough in the shoulder season. You can over-order, anticipate you're going to be busier."
Vegetables arrive twice a week in the summer, but shipments aren't 100 percent reliable. That's when the town restaurant network comes in handy.
"You can't just go to the grocery store," Davis said. "Everyone works together. The restaurants are all great about sharing with each other. Do you have any tomatoes, bell peppers?"
Authentic Thai food in a tiny Alaskan town isn't the only oxymoronic parts about Starfire. During a visit last August, Rose Royce's "Car Wash" swelled through the dining area. Tacked to a wall in front of a kitchen heated with activity and spicy ingredients hung a black flag with a skull and cross bones. Yet above the entrance into an adjoining dining area was a hand-painted sign that read, "Love is looking for you."
The quirk behind the culture at Starfire, Hitt and Jeffrey, began over a decade ago. They met in 2000 while both were working at another dining establishment in the town.
"We both had strong skill sets," Hitt said. "It was kind of an age thing too. In the food industry you can only make it so far. I was sick of being a bartender; he was sick of being a line cook."
Their first venture was a restaurant across from the local post office called "Sabrosa." Hitt was frustrated with how most of the dining options in town catered to the thousands of tourists that pour off one of four cruise ships that dock in the town each day during the summer.
Sabrosa was purchased from a friend of theirs, and they became the go-to place for locals and adventurous tourists seeking more spunk and baked goods, croissants, fresh salads, breakfast tacos and the infamous Big Fat Burrito.
In 2005 the building where Starfire is currently located became available.
"Like any start up, we didn't have any money," Hitt said.
But they did share a vision. Not only did they know they were compatible business partners, Hitt was well-versed in managing the front-of-the house and Davis had wanted to utilize his interest in Southeast Asian cuisine. The menu was comprised exclusively of Thai dishes for the first year. But, Hitt said, after recognizing that Thai food had a market in the town, they still needed to expand.
"We needed other alternatives," Hitt said. "We have a family of four and one person doesn't like Thai food? They go somewhere else."
Enter The Big Fat Burrito and other items that were added to the Thai offerings. The combination of Thai food with a few other options proved to be a huge success: in 2010 Hitt and Davis bought the building, and could finally make it their own.
"We were so successful," Davis said. "We were doing huge numbers that the kitchen wasn't designed to do. We needed more prep area, more storage and more freezer space."
An outdoor seating area had been added, and they expanded the kitchen.
A lot of the success of the restaurant hinges largely on Davis' adamancy of sticking to traditional Thai flavors and dishes. Davis began cooking when he was 15 years old. At 21 he had sufficiently bugged the owner of a Thai restaurant in Austin, Texas - where he was living - enough to get a position on the line. That position, however, only came after Davis learned how to read, write and speak Thai. The cooks didn't speak English and the hand-written order tickets were in Thai. He cultivated relationships with employees at the restaurant and has been flying back and forth from the country ever since.
"I just fell in love with the culture," Davis said. "I didn't take any Thai-specific cooking. I basically learned Grandma's cooking in Thailand," he said, referring to how he learned from friends' family members, watching and working with them in their kitchens. "It was like a new chapter in my life, and an exciting one."
It was in Thailand that Davis met people who were Skagway residents.
"They offered me a job cooking in a restaurant and I thought, 'Perfect,'" Davis said. "I came to Skagway in 1998 and pretty much never left."
Once Davis and Hitt became business partners, Davis had a chance to follow his passion and serve the food he liked to prepare and eat the most. But he has one strong stipulation.
Though times can get frantic when a necessary ingredient is in short-order, neither Hitt or Davis feel they have much about which to complain.
"A couple of years ago we were pretty surprised," Hitt said, about her restaurant's success. "But we sort of knew."
"I wasn't surprised," Davis retorted. "We worked too hard not to succeed. We put our heart and soul into it. We both have a passion for this place. I love this place, I love my job, we do it for ourselves, for each other, this is our life. Not many people get to say that."
Hitt's eyes glazed over as she reflected back.
"I remember like year two or three," she said. "I looked at Judd and thought, 'What have we created? We're trying to hold a dragon by a tail.' It was good. We were both excited."
Starfire will be reopening following their winter closure mid-March.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer at Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at email@example.com.