In the dream, Elijah Dalager is walking across Washington.
As he walks, he examines the foods in his home state – reaching out to touch ingredients, bringing them to his nose to smell them.
“It seemed so real, just kind of flowing across the state,” he says.
The Spokane chef is quick to acknowledge that sharing the story may make some people think he’s finally lost it, but he doesn’t care.
The dream has become a cornerstone of inspiration for the menu in a serious competition – the 2011 Chef of the Year contest at the Western Regional Conference of the American Culinary Federation in April.
Dalager will represent Washington at the competition in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he’ll try to out-cook four other American Culinary Federation chefs from states in the West.
He earned the chance to compete after winning a mystery box competition at the ACF’s state conference this summer. The chefs had to whip together four courses in four hours from a box of ingredients that included snapper, artichoke hearts, pork butt and mussels. They also used other ingredients from a pantry.
“I just have a real heart to compete,” Dalager says. “If I had to pick one thing out of my job competing would be it. It gives me a chance to really come out of my shell and just be a whole new person.”
While Dalager loves the spirit of competition among fellow chefs, it was never a given that he was on the path to a toque and white jacket. He’s was a self-described “problem child” in high school.
“I was not cut out for formal education,” he admits.
He landed at the Spokane Skills Center and found himself under the wing of chef and culinary instructor Bill Allen. Dalager trained and competed in a high school culinary competition and didn’t come close to winning.
“But it changed my life right then and there,” he says. “I liked the pace, the adrenaline.”
Dalager went on to study at the Inland Northwest Culinary Academy at Spokane Community Colleges and worked after school at the Spokane Club, with then executive chef Raymond Delfino.
Still, his path wasn’t exactly a straight trajectory to the top of the class. He dropped out of school early on when he started to wonder whether it was the right thing to do.
And then, just before graduation, he broke his foot and was forced to drop classes because he couldn’t be in the kitchen. Both times, mentor Delfino helped push him back into the action.
“He was a hard one, he was a hard kid, but I think he just found that this is a craft that he can excel in and that he truly enjoys and loves,” Delfino says.
Chef and culinary instructor Douglas Fisher says Dalager’s persistence was admirable. Fisher also coached Dalager on the junior ACF hot foods team at the college.
“I think what I appreciate about Elijah is that when he came into the program he had a lot of rough edges on him and he needed a lot of polishing and a lot of work, but he continued to think about his life and becoming more professional,” Fisher says.
“I guess, in a word, he’s tenacious. He’s a very hard worker and he doesn’t give up.”
Dalager graduated in 2007, in the meantime working his way up from dishwasher at the Spokane Club to banquet chef. After five years at the restaurant, he was longing for a challenge.
He found it at Restaurant Charlie at the Palazza Resort in Las Vegas. He worked there for almost a year. The 12- to 14-hour days helped him hone his craft, but also wore him down.
When the economy forced Restaurant Charlie to close, Dalager headed home. He landed as a chef at a fraternity house in Pullman, but for the past nine months he’s been the sous chef – under executive chef Delfino once again – at Harbor Crest Retirement Community.
It’s quite a change, he admits, but it’s also a relief to have more time to spend with family. He’s become adept at answering the question everyone is asking: “Why a retirement community?”
He and Delfino strive to serve fresh, local foods and they feel strongly that everyone deserves to be served fine foods.
“These are our elders and in any other culture you give respect to them because they’ve lived,” Dalager says. “They still have a ton to teach us. These are the people we should give the most respect to and, honestly, all I’ve got is food,”
In his free time, Dalager is dreaming about the menu for his upcoming regional competition.
He’s sketched out three courses, inspired by that dream, and he’ll be practicing the dishes and serving them to family and friends to perfect it. (Yes, he gets to plan for this competition.)
He’s recruited Jake Fast, also from the Harbor Crest retirement home kitchen, to help him at the contest. He’ll be combining what he calls an interpretation of modern Japanese kaiseki cuisine, classic French techniques and modern nouveau cuisine.
Kaiseki, Dalager says, is a “Japanese way of cooking where your food has a lot of ownership and it tells a story when you present it.”
The whole menu brings that dream he had to life.
The first course, “Walking on Coastline Waters,” will bring together clams, mussels, oysters and sea snails with citrus and fermented tea.
Duck, lentils, cattail and red oak are the building blocks for the second course, “Flying Above Fields of Gold.”
The final course, “Running through the Forest,” will feature venison, huckleberries, mushrooms and wild turnips.
“The way I like to write my menus is to leave room for the unknown. I think the unknown is beautiful thing,” Dalager says.
If he wins the regional competition, Dalager will move on to a national ACF competition.