PUBLISHED: 5:17 PM on Wednesday, May 9, 2007
State's First Chef knows art, science of gastronomy

Photo by Amanda Gragert
  Stefani Marnon, chef to three Alaska governors, was selected to represent the Last Frontier at the 2007 Great American Seafood Cook-off.
The chefs come from two-dozen states to work upon a long stage at a New Orleans Convention Center, under the glare of lights from the Food Network. Some of these men and women command the pandemonium of big kitchens, others feed famous people. A few get nervous because they're presenting signature dishes.

Last week Stefani Marnon learned she and another Alaska chef, Naomi Everett, had been selected to represent the Last Frontier at the 2007 Great American Seafood Cook-off, a summer showcase not just for the chefs, but for each state's fish and seafood bounty.

"I have to figure out what I'm going to prepare," said Marnon, who won accolades at the event in 2005 for her preparation of smoked Alaska black cod with Alaska king crab and shrimp risotto.

Today Marnon wears a black chef's jacket and leans over a stove making pan seared halibut. She'll serve it on a bed of lightly caramelized shitake and oyster mushrooms, snap peas and asparagus. For dessert it's shortcake with strawberries and fresh whipped cream.

The halibut sizzles, a blender whirs and there's a pile of uncooked vegetables that should have been sautéed earlier. It can be chaotic in the kitchen of the governor's mansion and it is Marnon's job to make sure guests never know. Marnon is Alaska's first chef. Today she is preparing an eight-person lunch. She refuses to say who is in attendance.

"I never cook and tell," she quips. The guests are in for a burst of spring, on a plate. And they're running late.

"With the fresh halibut, it may not be sunny outside, but the plate is sunny," she said.

Alaska is one of about 40 states with an executive chef position. Marnon is one of four on the governor's mansion household staff. She landed the coveted cooking job with good timing and chutzpah and after a circuitous journey. She is a native New Yorker who always insisted she'd never leave New York.

"I used to tell my friends, tell me place where you can find all that New York has to offer, and I'll move there in a second," she said.

She did leave to attend cooking school in Vermont. Then she went to New Orleans to pick up restaurant kitchen experience, but then the Big Apple lured her back.

Finally a friend persuaded her to visit Seattle. In a few weeks she had found a job and an apartment in the rain city.

She spent three years in Seattle, but when she learned that a friend was buying a Juneau restaurant and food business, she offered to join the staff. Not long after, she heard a rumor about a vacancy in the official residence.

"I called the governor's mansion and said, 'I understand the chef is leaving.'" Mansion staff asked her to drop off a resume.

She interviewed with the house manager and staff from the state's Department of Administrative Services. S

he had credentials: A degree from New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, a kind of factory for some of country's best known chefs. She had line cooking experience at Gautraux in New Orleans, Zo? in Manhattan and Campagna in Seattle.

Marnon rung in 1999 with a new job. That was six years before the White House hired its first female executive chef. Today Alaska's first chef works out of a large space in the back of the official residence. It's a mix of professional kitchen, and comfortable family space.

There are three refrigerators and a range with six burners. Twenty pots and pans hang from a ceiling rack.

Windows offer views of the Gastineau channel, there's a dog food bowl stuck in a corner for the first canine.

The executive chef has worked for three first families. Gov. Knowles loved salmon and black beans. He also taught Marnon the diplomatic power of food.

"Governor Knowles came back one time and said 'we were sitting at a table and we all disagreed and the only thing we agreed on when lunch was over was that lunch was good," she said.

Gov. Murkowski loved Halibut cheeks, but left menu choices to the First Lady. Still he'd come into the kitchen during prep time and ask Marnon about dinner.

"He'd say, 'what are we having tonight for dinner?' I'd start to tell him and he'd say, 'I don't want to know.' He would ask, but never want to know."

In the Palin Administration, the First Gentleman often signs off on food choices.

Alaska's top chef said meals for the first family are much less formal than entertaining dignitaries.

In fact, now that she's feeding teenagers, she's dug up recipes for pizza dough.

But she admits even she can't make it like they do in New York.