By Patti Morrow, Epicure & Culture Contributor
Tracie Triolo thought her life would be that of a musician. And it was, for a while. But her passion for food and the pull of the ocean proved irresistible, and she found herself on an entirely different path. One that she wouldn’t trade for anything.
“I grew up in a family of foodies before the term was even coined,” says Tracie. “My first memory was making fudge with my grandmother in Colorado when I was four years old. My father owned a restaurant, so if I wanted to see him, I went to work with him.”
Her father raised snails so the family could have escargot, while her grandfather had a fig tree that he loved so much he’d pot it and build a greenhouse over it every winter. Meanwhile, her mother went through a “Euell Gibbons” phase, harvesting wild things all the time. Tracie recognized at an early age that the produce in the grocery store was pretty awful, especially during Colorado winters.
“I had a broad variety of food influences, both in terms of restaurants and people. It gave me a really good food education and desire for nutrition that’s fresh, tasty and healthy,” Tracie explains. “Even in high school, I liked to go to the earthy-crunchy restaurants at the mall.”
From Music To Gastronomy
Tracie studied music in college and thought that would be her career, but in the middle of her junior year she realized that vocation would be a really hard way to make a living. After music school she enrolled in the culinary arts program at the New York Restaurant School (now part of the Art Institute of New York City).
“I decided I should do something to supplement my education so that I could work in any city in the world,” she explains.
After graduating from both career courses, Tracie took a few small jobs back in Colorado. Before long she decided she wanted to be closer to Alice Water’s food revolution, a movement revolving around creative cuisine made from locally grown, organic and seasonal ingredients and one of the most influential figures in food in the past 50 years. She moved to northern California and helped open the Fairmont Hotel in San Jose. Tracie later went on to work for Wolfgang Puck in his heyday.
When her grandmother became ill, Tracie took a hiatus from her high-profile jobs to care for her. During that time, she worked as a pastry chef and also started playing music again – in symphonies and jazz, salsa and big bands.
“I’ve always had a pull towards music, but cooking for a living is all-consuming. Most cooking jobs are sixty hours a week and there’s no time left to practice the eight-to-twelve hours a day I need to maintain competency.”
A Turning Point
Tracie’s sister owned a busy catering company. One day, she asked Tracie to fill in and do the food for a large bar mitzvah, to which Tracie agreed. The event proved to be opportune. One of the attendees was a woman named Betty Sederquist, a well-known and published photographer who also taught photography on a small boat. Impressed with Tracie’s decadent menu, she singled her out and said, “Hey, how would you like to come and cook on a boat in Alaska?”
“I’d read John McPhee’s Coming Into to the Country when I was in my early 20’s. His account of Alaska’s wilderness, landscapes, grizzlies, and early settlers was unforgettable,” Tracie recalls. “I immediately knew this was something that I wanted to do.”
Tracie worked for ten weeks on that boat in the first season, and immediately fell in love with Alaska and the different style of cooking. She also had total autonomy and creative license.
“Cooking for an audience of twelve passengers and crew and having access to immediate feedback is very different than working in big, high-profile hotels.”
Small ship work in Alaska is seasonal, so Tracie started to look for off-season eco-cruise work in more tropical locations. She went to the Caribbean and obtained her Captain’s License. It was while she was working on boats in Baja, Mexico that she met Bill Bailey, the Captain of the Westwood and Catalyst ships.
“He invited me to come aboard. I fell in love with the galley immediately and knew I wanted to work on the boat.”
So Tracie wrote a letter and sent her resume, and Bill called her to be the ship’s chef the next season. She’s been with the company and Captain Bailey for nine years, and their crew is currently rounded out by naturalist Hannah Hindley.
The Westward is an 8-passenger/3-crew historic wooden yacht, just 86 feet long, which allows it to enter coves and bays too shallow for larger ships to safely navigate. Cruises in Alaska and Baja, Mexico on the Westward are organized by AdventureSmith Explorations a likeminded eco-adventure tour company promoting responsible and sustainable travel.#Explore the outstanding #beauty of #Alaska while indulging in world-class #cuisine. Click To Tweet
The small Westward ship cruises through Alaska’s Inside Passage, able to pilot into lesser-explored bays, secluded channels, and islets for kayaking and whale watching. Some of the adventures offered include onshore hiking to gorgeous settings such as Baranof Hot Springs, Eva Lake, and Baird Glacier, as well as a cruise to the LeConte glacier. The itinerary also offers opportunities for responsible viewing of grizzly bears, sea lions, bald eagles and other wildlife.
Food Focus: Local, Organic, Sustainable
Tracie’s understanding of the importance of small-scale sustainable farming began with a wrist injury while in northern California. During her recovery time, she drove a produce van and met the farmers. She was amazed and delighted by farmers and their lives. It was this encounter that made her realize that food is much more important than how it’s generally glorified by many food media shows and high-end restaurants.
“You can’t smell or taste it. It can be far from what food really is, what’s important about it, and our connection to it. We literally are what we eat, but that gets lost,” Tracie explains. “It came to me as a kind of revelation when I was working for Wolfgang Puck. It was all about the show biz. People would come and have dinner and watch you sweat over the grill station. I’d sometimes think, ‘Okay this is great job security, they’re really into it, but wouldn’t you rather see a movie than watch me sweat?’”
According to Tracie, that’s not what food is about at all. It’s about the connection of food, the land that it comes from, the people who grow it, and the history and generations of people who have saved seeds. It’s about the Peruvians giving us tomato and corn and ancient grains.
“Our modern revolution of huge monoculture farms is not sustainable,” Tracie insists. “Eventually it will end, at the very least cause another dust bowl.”
Tracie believes it is each chef’s responsibility to source things and to use ingredients that will help sustain the land. She uses only spelt flour and ancient wheats because she considers it important to avoid using ingredients that are harmful.
“Modern wheat depletes soil. Spelt adds carbon to the soil and it’s useful in a rotation crop kind of way.”
Tracie makes an effort to source locally, despite not being an easy thing to do in both Alaska and Baja. About 70% of her produce and cheese come locally. She buys seafood from local fishermen whenever possible and tries to incorporate exotic local ingredients to give people a broader experience. She even grows her own organic herbs, edible flowers, and lettuces on the roof of the ship.
“On the ship, I’m the only restaurant in town, so it’s really nice to have variety,” she laughs.
Variety is far and away an understatement. Just a small sample of the Westward’s dinner menu:
- Local Silver Salmon, Wild Mushroom Vinaigrette, Brown Rice Risotto, Snap Peas
- Lamb, Pumpkin and Apricot Curry, Chard with Cashew Yogurt, Basmati Rice
- Elk Picadillo Filled Roasted Poblano Chile, Summer Squash
- Salt Fish Cake, Mango Salsa, Cuban Style Black Beans, Mashed Yams and Plantains
When Your Job Turns Into Your Calling
A true Renaissance woman, Tracie wears many hats around the ship. She takes turns driving the ship, cleans the engine, loads kayaks, lowers and raises the anchor. Being part of a three-person crew, she does whatever needs to be done on the ship.Combine #responsible #travel with a #delicious culinary #experience when #traveling to #Alaska. Click To Tweet
That’s the beauty of cruising on these small boats, not only from the perspective of crew, but from guests as well. There is a very clearly defined community.
“We’re all literally surrounded by danger, and it brings people together in a very different way than ever happens on land,” she tells me. “Instant intimacy, just add water! It’s an intense thing, and it has to start with the crew. We really have each other’s backs.”
Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of AdventureSmith during her Alaska cruise on the Westward, but as always, the opinions, reviews and experiences are her own.
In terms of eco and food-focused things to do in Alaska, what are your picks? Please share in the comments below!
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