We talked with the Executive Chef of the Tillicum Excursion, Paul Michael, about what it’s like running a kitchen on an island.
What are some of the unique challenges with running a kitchen out on an island?
The biggest challenge is simply the logistics of transport. Everything we need to cook or cook with is delivered to the island by boat. We have to carefully plan and order everything we need in advance. While last minute deliveries are possible with Argosy’s small runabout boats, they’re not an option we turn to often. Looking ahead in our schedule and anticipating needs goes a long way out here.
We also have to carry all our garbage off the island. We’re our own sanitation department out here as well!
Scheduling for crew can also be a challenge. You miss the boat and the next one might not arrive for another hour and a half.What does a typical day look like for you and your kitchen staff?
A few of us show up early to check in the product deliveries and move it onto the boat, before the rest of the kitchen crew and service staff arrives for the boat ride over in the morning. We talk over our plan for the day to make sure there is nothing else we need before departure.
Once the rest of the crew arrives, we finish loading up the rest of our stuff and we head for the island. The ride over to Blake Island is one of the few times during the day the staff can take a break. Once we hit the dock everyone works together to unload the boat and get all the product up to the kitchen inside the Tillicum Longhouse.
Next the ovens are turned on and the kitchen starts prepping the cold foods, like the fruit and salads. Buffet Master Carlos sets up the tables for morning service, and then prep work for future events and checking inventory begins.We get a call from the captain with the final guest numbers as the boat leaves the dock with passengers, and that’s when the fish is set up in the pits and roasting begins. Cooking time is synchronized with the cruising time.
At the end of service, we clean up everything and start prep for the next event. We are very cognizant of time out here, as we are dependent on the day’s last boat back to Seattle for our transportation home.
The Tillicum Excursion sailings aren’t the only events you and your staff cook for out on Blake Island.
The range of events we are able to put on out here has really grown the past few years. It’s been very rewarding to find new ways to bring guests out here to this amazing place.
We have our Easter and Mother’s Day brunches that are very popular. Good holidays for destination experiences like those.
For decades school-aged kids have been coming out here to experience the Tillicum show and learn about the Northwest Coastal Native Americans’ culture, and the Tillicum School Program is still very successful and memorable for those kids.
More recently, we have teamed up with the Sales Department to create the Argosy Chill and Grill on Blake Island excursion for groups. People still get the cruise out to the island, and then we put on a full backyard barbecue buffet spread for them. Afterwards they can lounge in hammocks or play games out in our Totem Garden.
New for us this year is the upcoming Boatoberfest on October 8. We’ll have around eight different beers for our guests to sample throughout the event, and we have come up with a German menu with tasting options included within it to match: Three different types of sausages, five different kinds of mustard to go with the pretzels, for example. For the set-up we are planning on creating food stations within the dining area so people can wander around and try all the different options while pairing their beers with everything.
How do these special events now and then compare to the repetition of a full season of the Tillicum Excursion?
Even though we see the Tillicum show almost every day, it’s still remarkable. Even now, after a full season has come and gone, we are still affected by the show and the dance. Seeing our guests reactions to the story and the art, whether it’s their first time to Tillicum or their tenth, is very moving. Every day we’re out here, we know how special this place is.
The choices we have made with the Tillicum menu are reactions to the history of this place and the environment. The fish and the way it is prepared and cooked is in the way Native people in our area have done it for centuries. The clams in the appetizer and the venison in the stew were part of the local people’s diet. The wild rice in the pilaf and the corn of the polenta were not particular to our Northwest Coastal Native Americans, but were vital to Native peoples in different parts of America. When you taste this menu, you’re tasting a broader story of the original food of America — much in the same way that this island cultural experience is drawing guests from across America, and the world.