Meet the chef who learned to cook with seal and other Indigenous foods at Alaska hospital

Hospitals aren’t usually known for having memorable cuisine. But at this Alaska facility, the standard bland “tray food” has been set aside in favour of a restaurant-style approach complete with a menu that offers at least 60 per cent Indigenous foods.

Alaska Native Medical Center serves dishes like reindeer stew and seal soup to help patients heal

Amy Foote, left, executive chef of Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, Alaska, uses a saw to cut up a large piece of seal meat donated through the hospital's traditional native foods initiative. (Submitted by Amy Foote)

When Vern Luckhurst looks back on his time in the 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," said Luckhurst. "They have it flavoured just like you'd be cooking it at home."

At the Alaska Native Medical Center, a 173-bed hospital in Anchorage, Alaska, Indigenous cuisine is front and centre on the patient menu. Depending on what's in season or what has been donated to the facility by hunters and fishers, patients might dine on seal soup, fiddlehead fig pizza or herring eggs with peas.

"They have excellent comfort foods for elders, or just for, you know, native people," said the 70-year-old Luckhurst. "Even if it was a low-sodium diet, you know, it still was really flavourful.

"They make really, really good salmon."

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

Hospitals aren't usually known for having memorable cuisine. But at this facility, the standard bland "tray food" has been set aside in favour of a restaurant-style approach complete with a menu that offers patients choice.

At least 60 per cent of those dishes incorporate Indigenous foods. Now the hospital's traditional native foods initiative is gaining attention as a model of what could be achieved at other hospitals in the United States and Canada.

The Alaska Native Medical Center is the only hospital in Anchorage and the state's only trauma centre. While the focus is on the Indigenous population, the centre serves patients from all backgrounds.

Standard hospital fare was getting thrown out    

When Vivian Echavarria took over as the hospital's assistant administrator, she saw just how much that tray food was missing the mark.

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

"As I was looking at how much food was being thrown out because that's not the food that our people eat, I saw a lot of money going down the drain," said Echavarria, who is now vice-president of professional and support services at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, which includes the hospital.

When the food services contract eventually came up for renewal, she made a requirement that the next contract include an executive chef.

"It had to have someone who had the culinary depth, the scope, breadth to be able to prepare foods like you would see [on] these chef programs on national TV," she told Unreserved host Rosanna Deerchild.

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

Then her career took them to restaurants, hotels and lodges in Montana for about a decade, "all the while dreaming of how we could get back to Alaska," said Foote.

'It's a huge reward'

She jumped at the opportunity to pivot to the role at the Alaska Native Medical Center, a move that Foote said has been incredibly gratifying.

"You can cook a very nice steak at a four-star restaurant and … it's a one-time experience," she said. "But when you're working in a hospital and you have this opportunity to get someone to eat that maybe hasn't eaten for a couple of weeks, or even a few days, and you help them on their path to healing, on their path back to home and back to their lives, it's a huge reward."

Cooking for Alaska's Indigenous people isn't a one-size-fits-all proposition, said Foote, given there are 229 recognized tribes in the state spread over a vast 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 and the plants and the geography are different.

"And so that becomes a real challenge learning everyone's traditional ingredients, traditional methods of harvesting, traditional preparations and then actually figuring out how to get all of those ingredients to Anchorage."

For Foote, gathering and foraging for the hospital's traditional native foods initiative last all year. Here she is pictured with the fruits of her labour picking crab apples. (Submitted by Amy Foote)

Since many of the key animal products can't be bought through the usual food suppliers, the traditional food program relies on donations from hunters and fishers, and those have to meet strict food safety guidelines.

Learning to work with seal

"Coming to Alaska, an animal that I hadn't worked with obviously would be seal. We don't have those in Idaho and Montana," said Foote. "So that was a definite learning curve."

She found guidance from some of the Indigenous women on the kitchen staff who have experience butchering the animal.

"Seal meat is very dense and it's almost like an organ meat 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 is her favourite traditional comfort food.

"There is something about seal oil that, once it hits your mouth … seems to soothe you from the inside out."

"I think for some, that might be like Grandma's chicken noodle soup." 

A small oily fish called 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 travel from home for treatment and the visitor restrictions brought by the pandemic, said Dunegan.

The traditional foods themselves have properties that can help with healing, she said.

"So if we're eating seal oil or herring eggs or something like that, that's really high in omega-3 fatty acids, which gives you a really good anti-inflammatory properties and a lot of other health benefits."

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

A few Canadian hospitals have also embraced traditional Indigenous cuisine. Hospitals in the Yukon have been serving traditional foods for 25 years.

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

At the Alaska Native Health Center, Foote said she's observed a kind of spiritual and physical healing in feeding patients this way.

"There's the act of giving, the beauty in being able to get someone to eat … to give an elder who just wants a bowl of seal soup because it's the only thing that they could get down that day. So there's a lot of things that I love about my job."

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