Quick Takes: Beau Schooler, The Rookery
Step 1: Get exiled to Juneau. Step 2: Foster a food scene unlike anything in the rest of the country.
August 23, 2016
On a map, it’s easy to overlook Juneau, Alaska.
It sits in the state’s panhandle, a tiny sliver of rugged land bordered by Canada on one side and scattered islands on the other. It’s quiet, desolate, and outrageously beautiful. Cruise ships dock there, often a half dozen at a time, but peel back the tourist gloss of old-timey frontiersman bullshit and there’s a gritty, grimier side; the time warp of long, gray days in the summer followed by harsh, dark winters tends to screw with your head.
For the thousands of people that visit for a day or two each summer, Juneau is a nice place to buy some mass-produced Alaskan arts and crafts. For others, it’s a nice place to disappear and never be heard from again.
Take Beau Schooler. Like Juneau itself, there are layers to him. On the surface, Schooler is a chef, a restaurateur, and a father. Go deeper and it’s more complicated; he’s a self-doubting craftsman, unwitting Alaskan culinary standard bearer, a man trying to confront and embrace his past while moving beyond it. He’s the kind of person who casually disappears into the woods to look for bears. Seeking out casual mayhem and potential danger — that’s Beau. He usually has a wry smile on his face that can be perceived as playful or menacing, often both in the same moment. He’s soft-spoken. Getting a read on him can be difficult, especially when you realize that this is absolutely intentional.
As he tells it, Schooler was run out of Anchorage, and then Homer, nine years ago. He’d gotten into a spot of trouble, which prompted some concerned employers to gift him with a ticket to Juneau, where he landed a job cooking at a shitty hotel — the kind of place that used to be great, but was never restored to its former glory, that no one had loved for a long time. The food was all pre-cooked, then reheated. Not an inspiring backdrop, but not troublesome either.
Life slowly reset; he found friends, started a family. He dropped his drinking habits, but kept an affinity for Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. “They had substance abuse problems, lived hard, were creative, had rugged lives. Then they died,” he’ll tell you. “It’s that last part that I'm trying to delay.”
After the hotel, there were jobs bartending, then cooking again, followed by the inevitable promotion to chefdom far too early. Do whatever you want, he was told, just make money doing it. He created, and failed; created again. He kept opening places in Juneau until a falling out with his former bosses led him to The Rookery Cafe, a coffee shop with dreams of doing more. Schooler bought in as a part owner.
The kitchen he inherited had a pizza oven, two burners and no hood. “I don’t know how we got away with what we did for so long,” he admits. “Somehow we never got shut down operating like that.” In the end, it was innovation via necessity and the heritage of his young daughter that helped solidify his culinary voice: simple Asian cooking with an Alaskan lens, with huge, bold flavors guided by his adopted Filipino family.
Juneau’s a small place, so it’s easy to see Schooler’s culinary footprint, which is now composed of four spots: The Taqueria; a high-end Italian place, In Bocca al Lupo; charcuterie outpost Panhandle Provisions; and the transformed coffee shop, The Rookery. There have been James Beard nominations, calls from Food & Wine and VICE. The places are packed, but any mention of success prompts merely a shrug. When you’re the only game in town, what is success anyway? Any recognition, he adds, belongs to his staff, the majority of whom have been with him for at least two years, dishwashers included. Some have even stuck around for six or seven. Without them keeping his craziness in check, he says he’d probably have to leave town again.
Still, he seems to bask in his forced culinary solitude. When you're given a completely blank slate to fill and complete creative freedom to do it, the results are astounding. Handmade breads. Outrageous charcuterie laced with kimchi. Reindeer ramen. Black bear tobacco salami. Black cod bibimbap. The list goes on. Produce is impossible, so he reimagines the mileage of what he does have — regular trips to the farmers market aren’t really a thing in Juneau. “I’ve never tried to be the torchbearer for cooking in Alaska,” he says. “If I'm gonna work a bunch, I'm at least going to have fun doing it.”
Family keeps him rooted in Juneau, but it’s difficult not to imagine what his impact might be in a major American city. (Canadian cities are out, because Schooler may also be banned from re-entering Canada. True story.) Is his singular talent wasted cooking for a captive audience of tourists? Or is his craft evolving in a way that simply isn’t possible in a market with ten thousand dollar rents and thirsty critics?
It’s a little bit of both, which is what makes Schooler’s food impressive and maddening all at the same time. That a place can propel a person forward while simultaneously holding them back is a rarity in this industry.
The ironic beauty of what Beau has created in Juneau is that while he may have only meant to carve out a haven for himself, his restaurants have grown into places where cooks can be themselves in the fight to establish a rugged-as-hell food scene, to be a part of a community they define. To strive, and struggle, and grow.
Torchbearer or no, Schooler has tapped the lifeblood of a place hidden behind the souvenir shops and gloss, and presented it as it is. Imperfect and gritty, and of its own making — kind of like him.