When I arrived at Allen & Petersen Cooking & Appliance Center in Anchorage to meet and photograph Chef Sarah Naef, I could hear the whine of a small kitchen appliance.
I wandered through the showroom and found her in the kitchen. She momentarily looked up from her blender to smile and say, “Dan, I’ve been expecting you, I’ll be with yah’ in a sec!”
I took a seat at a two-top mahogany table and set my camera bag down on the floor.
I sat and watched Sarah and her prep cook move through the busy kitchen. Sarah carried an armful of ingredients from the refrigerator to her prep cook and gave instructions. Then said over her shoulder, “I haven’t forgotten about yah’—will be just another minute.”
I watched and wondered about all the preparation that was going into a cooking class about making burgers. At home, I just pat out a couple of patties, sprinkle a little salt and pepper on them and bam, done. As the night went on, I would learn that this wasn’t “burgers.”
A few minutes later, Sarah pulled up the other chair. With her aqua-color ponytail bobbing and while wiping wet hands on a towel, finally properly introduced herself, “Hi, I’m Chef Sarah, glad you’re here!”
We talked about photographing the evening, but decided that her interview would have to be another time. The kitchen was not conducive to recording, and she was swamped getting ready for the evening’s class.
“I actually thought I wanted to go into nursing,” Sarah began the interview, sitting cross-legged on her couch in Wasilla. “I was doing home health care and really love taking care of people. Strangely enough, one of the things I loved the most when taking care of people was cooking for them in their homes,” she added with a chuckle. But at 19 years old with an infant child, Sarah didn’t think that college was a realistic goal in her life.
A few years later, Sarah met her husband, and they had another child. Sarah continued to work in home health care and other part-time jobs to make ends meet.
“I started watching TV’s Food Network,” she said, “and started dreaming– thinking how amazing it would be to cook like that.”
Sometimes fate has a strange way of working. Not long after viewing one of those television programs, Sarah was at the movie theater with her mom and saw a commercial for a culinary arts program at the local college. She thought, “Dang, that would be so cool to go to culinary arts school!”
Both her mom and husband urged her to apply, but she couldn’t imagine how they would be able to pay for school. Finally, she applied to Colorado Mountain Culinary Institute and was accepted. She was able to work through their apprenticeship program, and also applied for and received scholarships which allowed her to afford school.
During Sarah’s first year at culinary school, she was invited to go to the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France. She would be a student working at the American Pavilion. Sarah remembers, “I went home and told everyone I got invited to do this, but how ridiculous would that be! Me going away from my kids for two weeks! My husband told me, You call them back right now. You’re going!”
And she did.
Because of her work at the Cannes Film Festival, she was invited back to work as the catering chef, which is a teaching position for new students. Over the next three years, she returned as the Executive Chef at the American Pavilion.
Back at home in Colorado
When in Colorado, Sarah spent much of her time networking and cooking for private events as well as national events like the Aspen Food and Wine Festival. At the same time, she was the Executive Chef for an upscale restaurant in Carbondale, CO. Sarah didn’t have much downtime. In between the private events and duties of executive chef of the fancy restaurant, she also helped other restaurants re-vamp their menus.
Cooking and teaching come together
Teaching, alongside cooking, was now becoming what Sarah loved most. She returned to teach at the college she graduated from, the Colorado Mountain Culinary Institute as well as a high school dual credit program. This experience led to a position as the director of a program in Garfield County called Cooking Matters.
“It’s an amazing program,” she explains. “It teaches families how to use their SNAP Funding (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in a more health-conscious way.” As part of the program, Sarah would work with a family once a week for six weeks, educating them about recipes available for under $10 for a family of five. She would show them how to shop and prepare the food.
“They were learning nutrition and how to read labels-very important things that we sometimes overlook with SNAP Funding,” she notes. “Grabbing a bag of chips is a lot easier than getting a few ingredients, but those few ingredients go a lot farther.”
The program was aimed at reducing health-related issues that face many low-income families. “I became very impassioned about showing people that it’s very simple, and then seeing how it changed people’s lives.”
Sarah also began working with young adults who were experiencing behavioral issues. “Culinary is always a great place for these people because it is creative and artistic. We’re kinda’ like pirates back in the kitchen. We can be a rough group in a lot of ways. They sometimes don’t communicate the same as everyone else. Even if they didn’t want to go on to be a chef later on, they found a group of people they could relate to, and it was a bit exciting for them.”
Sarah would work with the kids, coach them, and teach cooking skills. At the end of their time together, they would cook and serve at the local soup kitchen. Sarah said with sincerity, “So, that was another thing I found to be incredibly rewarding. In all that, that’s when I started really realizing… teaching, on top of cooking, was something that I was incredibly passionate about.”
Time for a break
Sarah readily admits she was extremely busy with both family and a very demanding work schedule. It took a serious toll on her health. She was experiencing burnout. She and her husband decided a move to Alaska would give her a fresh start. Once here, she took some much needed time off to heal and, in her words, “Chill.”
Just about the time Sarah was getting a little bored at home and getting the itch to resume work, she saw an ad. Sarah remembers thinking, “I was on Facebook one day, and I saw the position and the job description. I thought, oh my gosh, this is my job, it’s perfect!”
The job was for Executive Chef at Allen & Petersen Cooking School in Anchorage. She put in her application, got an interview, and landed the job.
Chef Sarah heads up the cooking school at Allen & Petersen. She and her staff offer a wide variety of fun cooking classes and events for all ages and levels of experience. Chef Sarah also offers private lessons.
In a light-hearted voice and with a bit of laughter, Sarah says, “It’s for all levels, it’s for everyone. I teach little, little kids. I also had a woman that was 92 that came here in a wheelchair and is still with us. Food is just so much more than just going into our bodies. There is a social beauty to it all. I encourage everyone, especially that person who says they shouldn’t be in the kitchen – come see me!”
Back in the Kitchen at Allen & Petersen
Tonight, it was Burgers Re-Built, and all that prep work paid off. We made four different sliders, all with fresh ingredients. Chef Sarah made sautéed mushrooms and onions, unique spreads, and sauces to top our sliders – served on toasted sweet Hawaiian slider rolls. Out of this world tasty!
As the friendly hubbub of kitchen conversation about which slider was best and how full we were was winding down, Lily, Sarah’s prep cook and teenage daughter, appeared with a new set of plates and Chef Sarah announced dessert.
The plates contained two round pieces of chocolate cake, about the size of a hockey puck. Lily placed a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream on one cake, while Chef Sarah placed two clear plastic squeeze bottles down on the table.
Looking at me with a wink, she said, “Don’t forget the ketchup and mustard.”
Everyone looked at one another quizzically. The “ketchup” was actually a wonderfully flavored raspberry sauce, and the “mustard” was a tangy Mango sauce.
Just about the time that I realized how amazing the combination of chocolate, raspberry, and mango was, I remembered the noise of the blender when I walked in. I thought about all the preparation that had gone into this evening, and the enjoyment that came from sharing the experience. And then, like the rest of the participants, I didn’t let being stuffed to the gills stop me from finishing my last sweet slider.