When you first see chef Jeffery Brooks walking around Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he serves as executive chef at Pike’s Landing Restaurant, you’ll quickly get the feeling he knows everyone, and everyone knows him too. Well, he has been a lifelong resident and cheerleader of the city, raised there since he was an infant and witnessing his hometown blossom into the international destination it is today.
Brooks has worked on the property since the previous owners purchased it in the ‘80s and saw ownership change hands in later years. He has gone from dishwasher to executive chef throughout his career in no time thanks to his innate talent to observe, absorb, and implement. Through it all, chef has witnessed the kitchen at Pike’s move from fine dining to a casual concept as he navigates the pandemic with barely a handful of staff and continues to give his time and skills to the culinary field.
Charting the Course
How did Fairbanks come to be known as home for Brooks? The simple answer is his mother. Living in Arkansas in the 1960s, she decided there wasn’t much opportunity available to her there. At the age of 22, she made her way to Fairbanks to join family. Brooks was but an infant at the time.
Fairbanks is where he was raised and completed all his schooling after a short time away. Aiming to become an electrical engineer, he realized he couldn’t afford that endeavor after just a year of pursuing it. Back it was to Fairbanks, where he worked a few different jobs until he was hired as a dishwasher at the Sunset Inn. “I was happy. I didn't care how many hours they want me to work, I was so broke it was unbelievable,” he says. “My mom told me that nobody gives you anything for free. Whatever you want you got to earn it, so I've been working ever since that point.”
While dishwashing, he’d observe how the rest of the staff worked. The owners observed his talent for absorbing what was happening in his surroundings and putting that to practice. They trained Brooks to be a cook, and within months, he oversaw the cook line. There’s been no turning back.
“It's interesting that I just fell in the place. I never got to go back to work on my electrical engineering because I fell in love with this little cooking world and accidentally got myself into just doing it,” he says. “I was just trying to see how I could make things easier, better, or otherwise for myself. They would ask me to do something once, and I figure out a way to do it again automatically.”
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Brooks earned a culinary arts certification in Fairbanks and trained with the American Chefs Association. A first attempt at earning a certified executive chef title wasn’t successful, but he persevered and received the certification on his second try.
Navigating the Challenges
Brooks went on to work as an adjunct instructor at the culinary arts program for years and has been working at Pike’s since 1985, when the owners of the Sunset Inn purchased the hotel. Current owner Jay Ramras purchased Pike’s in 1999 after the existing owners decided to retire. Today Brooks is excited to be working with Ramras and all the progress that has been made in the past few years.
The pandemic, of course, brought its challenges. “I used to have a staff of about 25 people in rotation and now I got a staff of seven or eight. Clearly, COVID has changed the dynamics of how we can hire,” he says. “We're trying, but it’s just different now. People will come at some point in time, but it requires a little bit more of my time and training,” he says.
In addition, ingredients have sometimes been scarce to come by, so Brooks has had to pre-plan and adjust. “Manufacturing is a problem that I can't fix, but I can adjust to all the time. We're running out of stuff that we used to never run out of consistently, and so we just adapt our menu to whatever it is that we can get,” he says. “It’s amazing how often in the last two years every restaurant in Fairbanks at some point in time has run out of chicken wings!”
The menu used to be higher-end, and Pike’s was first a white tablecloth restaurant offering fine dining. Over the years, seeing that it wasn’t cost-effective, the restaurant has moved to casual dining mode. Where a Beef Wellington was a daily, now it’s a special. Some of the popular items on the menu are three different versions of burgers, including a jalapeno burger with a fresh grilled jalapeno that regular diners favor and chicken wings and breaded coconut prawns. Desserts are made in-house by chef and usually have about ten options presented on a tray tableside for diners to choose from.
Mapping the Future
Local must-haves Brooks points to are salmon, halibut, shrimp and crab. Prime rib is also a crowd pleaser. He credits his mother and grandmother and their southern cooking prowess for his culinary inclinations and believes some of that core skill has trickled across generations. Ask him about travel to Alaska and he excitedly rattles away.
“In the summer, we have 24 hours of sunlight. You go to sleep when your body tells you you're tired. The dynamics of getting up at eight in the morning and going to bed at seven in the evening don't really exist. There’s Denali that becomes its own little city for about 120 days.”
In the wintertime, low temperatures and inclement weather see you bundling up to combat the elements, but between the northern lights, sled dog racing, snow machine riding, skiing, and a few other wintertime activities, there is plenty to still enjoy the season.
Over all these years and the changes that he has seen in Fairbanks, Brooks shares that he still loves what he does and will continue this culinary path he has created for himself. “I'm going to be hanging out as long as my energy level is good, as fast and efficient as I need to be because probably one of the best things that I have is my ability to become more efficient when necessary.”
He sees his expertise possibly being channeled better in later years toward consulting with restaurants in areas of efficiency of operations. Meanwhile, his heart is at Pike’s and Fairbanks. “Every day there are different dynamics because there are so many personalities that walk through this property with different ideas and most of them just want to hang out with us, love the atmosphere, have a nice beverage or meal, and then go about their business. I love what we do.”