Stepping inside customers enjoy open space, warm decorating, bright lighting and modern kitchen equipment - never guessing it once was a pull-tab bar and boxing ring. There are seats to watch demonstrations and work areas for hands-on classes. The grand opening was held May 5.
"I think it's a tremendous asset to the community, and a great recreational activity for tourists and locals," said resident instructor Gretchen Pence, who has been cooking since she was a girl. "Cooking for me is incredibly relaxing; it's a lot of fun cooking for family."
One goal is to tell tourists about seafood and natural products familiar to the area that locals cook and eat, said Sharon Barton, one of the many culinary instructors.
Chez Alaska is founded by Juneau locals, Laraine Derrr, president, and Romer Derr, vice-president. Since 1983 Laraine Derr has been catering receptions. Working in various educational positions, she was head of the School of Business and Public Administration at the University of Alaska Southeast. She has certification in food and beverage management and a master's degree in business administration. Eight months ago, Derr was business administrator for the Alaska Youth Choir.
Experienced in running an independent business, Romer Derr owned Harri's Plumbing Heating and Marine. He is most famous for his sourdough starter, which can be traced back to Skagway in the late 1800s. Winning awards with his smoked salmon, Derr works alongside his wife.
"He doesn't give me advice - he's let me go completely on my own," Laraine Derr said with a laugh.
Getting started, she said everybody in Juneau sits around and says "how can we make a buck off tourists?"
"Someone mentioned you can't make money unless you can do a group, and someone said you could do a group as a cooking school and I said, 'OK, sure,'" she said.
With a little inspiration, the Derrs vacationed in Las Vegas and visited a cooking school, and then visited her daughter in Ohio and went to a cooking school.
"If I'm traveling around going to cooking schools, people coming to Juneau might like to go to a cooking school," Laraine Derr said.
"So that was the basis of it-I enjoyed doing that when I was traveling."
Not wasting any time, she filed her papers with the state in January, and started in the building the first of March.
Through the summer, Chez Alaska has a contract with Princess Tours and is participating in the Taste of Juneau tour.
Taste of Juneau includes tour stops to the Alaska Brewery, Macauley Salmon Hatchery and more. The tour demonstration classes are 45 minutes and seat 24 students. While Taste of Juneau targets tourists, Chez Alaska states anyone may sign up for any class at any time online.
Example demonstration dishes include salmon fettuccine prepared with Alaska smoked porter.
"Everybody gets a taste, you won't go away hungry," she said.
The cooking school offers 16 Taste of Juneau classes per week and one hands-on class every day; it is open seven days a week.
Hands-on classes are three or more hours long and interactive, fitting up to 20 students. Each student will have their own work space to cook dishes, and eat what they prepare.
Derr said the cooking school is community-style and recreational.
"I call them educational and entertainment," Derr said concerning the cooking classes.
Chez Alaska's cooking instructors are made up of local professionals ranging from chefs to home cooks.
Heather Sincic, who cooks for the senior center, adds her flare to the school. She's also a wigologist and twirling drummer for a bag pipe band in Juneau.
"She's a flamboyant person; she was doing her Julia Child thing on Saturday," Derr said with a smile.
Additional instructors include Derrick Snyder who used to cook at the Bear Tooth Grill and Hilton in Anchorage and Daisy Nicolas who gained expertise from the California Culinary Academy and Tante Maria's Cooking School in San Francisco. Chez Alaska will also feature visiting guest chefs from Seattle and Larson Bay near Kodiak.
Products Chez Alaska cook and teach about range from familiar products such as crab, scallops and halibut to other delicacies like squid, sea cucumber or abalone.
Recently instructor Sincic prepared reindeer sausage and biscuits.
Other specialties include canning, smoking and cooking moose, salmon or shrimp, sourdough bread and more. Cooking themes vary from specialty brunches, cooking Cajun to Asian.
Classes include recipes such as a Sincic's three berry dessert with mascarpone cheese and honey and Snyder's shrimp mojo with ajo (lots of garlic).
What motivates Derr is that Alaskans see so much seafood go south to people who don't know how to use it correctly.
"My ultimate goal is to have contacts with those people who catch fish, who take it south and make sure they use it in a good manner and our Alaska resources are not wasted-so they will buy more," she said.
Overall, improving the economic well-being in the state of Alaska is Derr's main concern.
"It is founded on the belief that Southeast Alaska is rich in resources from the land and sea and those should be prepared in the tastiest way possible-and that preparation should be shared with everyone," states Chez Alaska Cooking School.
While not solely focusing on retail products, the cooking school uses and sells Blue Clay Studio's high-fired porcelain stoneware and their own special organic coffee blend created by Heritage Coffee.
For more information, contact Chez Alaska Cooking School at 790-2439 or go online to www.chezalaska.com.