Kirsten Dixon appeared on the TODAY Show on September 16, 2011.
Leaving Alaska is always complicated for me. I love to travel, learn new things, and meet new people – but I am always reluctant to leave my home. Last week, I was invited to cook on the “Today” show in New York City, which of course just doesn’t come along every day. So, despite my last-minute yearnings to finish covering the garden with leaves and straw, make sure the roses I bought in pots this summer were safely in the ground and ready for the long winter, and the honey bees were doing OK, I packed my suitcase and headed for New York.
A flurry of emails from and to Deb, a “Today” show food stylist, crafted a reasonable and organized battle plan. Thinking of an iconic recipe that might express my cuisine and the soul of the food of Alaska is not an easy choice. There’s too much to say. In the end, I decided to go with something I know well. I settled upon Alaska king crab beignets — small, deep-fried fritters. We’re heading in to crab season and guests at my lodge always love this recipe so it was a good choice.
I have learned from past experience to always bring along my own fish when I travel for culinary events. Picked crabmeat to someone in New York City can be a very different thing than picked crabmeat to an Alaskan. With the help of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, I tracked down a whole king crab from the Bering Sea to bring along and be the star of the show.
My beautiful king crab and an arsenal of crab legs left for New York City on Monday morning. They arrived on Tuesday and I arrived on Wednesday.
On Thursday, we headed to rehearsal. We picked out bowls and platters and pots from a literal warehouse of choices. Large rolling shelves opened to display shelf after shelf of any kind of kitchen prop that might ever be needed. We laid out the dishes and a strategy for the segment.
“Four minutes and 30 seconds is what you have for air time”, Aysha, the producer tells me. “That’s really great. Most chefs only get only about two minutes.”
We practiced our demo and it timed out at four minutes exactly. I was feeling pretty snug and comfy.
On Friday, I got up at 6:30 in the morning. Mandy made some coffee in our hotel room and we sat on the edge of my bed.
“Just don’t screw up”, she offered as advice.
We did a practice run with each other in the hotel room, Mandy acting like the host. When Mandy’s telephone timer started, my brain disconnected and took over in some kind of autopilot way.
“So then, take the shell out of the crabmeat”, I say. Mandy looked worried.
We walked to the “Today” entrance. The street was jammed with people holding signs and babies. We pushed through the door and the security guard already knew who we were. He showed a co-worker a cellphone photo of Charlie Sheen he had just taken. Inside the inner workings of the “Today” show, there are shoes and jackets and other clothes hanging everywhere. We weaved our way up a narrow set of stairs to the kitchen studio and it was transformed into a real kitchen. The ovens were on and at the right temperature. Herbs and squash and every ingredient I asked for had appeared and were in place. People bustled around and arranged or cleaned. I opened a crammed drawer full of utensils and pulled out a wooden spoon for the demo.
I went down to the make-up area and green room. It was filled with people getting ready to go on air, all in various stages of conversation with each other. I was transformed from a granny-bun and no-makeup chef from Alaska to someone who looked a little bit more put together. Adam Rapoport came by and chatted with me. He is the new editor-in-chief for Bon Appétit magazine.
I walked up the stairs back to the kitchen and passed Jenna Bush along the way. She smiled and said hello. The off-camera area of the kitchen studio was jammed with people – cameramen, producers, others with coffee cups. I stood at my spot near the King crab. He (or she) was looking fantastic. My knees were beginning to shake just a little. One minute before going live, the Today Show hosts, Savannah Guthrie and Natalie Morales, came in. They smiled warmly and reassured me everything would be just fine. Forty seconds to go and I took a deep breath. And then, we were live.
It was a blur through the recipe and somehow our segment had been shortened to only two and a half minutes. It might have been nice to know ahead of time, but as Natalie said, “Hey, it’s live TV.”
After the segment, the camera crew descended on the beignets and they disappeared. The hairdresser came up to try one. The crab legs vanished. I felt happy to have been able to share my crab with all of these people. I felt happy to honor Alaska commercial fishermen. Phew. It was over.
We had to catch a plane back right away to Alaska. We have late fall guests at Tutka Bay Lodge and I wanted to be there to cook for them. I want to take them to see my crab pot up the bay. In the Newark airport, a lady walked up to Mandy and me. “Were you on the Today Show this morning?” she asked. We said yes. “It was way too short. They should have given you more time,” she said.