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Kodiak’s newest downtown eatery dishes up meals with inspiration from Old Harbor

Melissa Berns-Svoboda opened Nuniaq in downtown Kodiak this winter, and plans to expand the location to include a dine-in section by this summer. (Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)
Melissa Berns-Svoboda opened Nuniaq in downtown Kodiak this winter, and plans to expand the location to include a dine-in section by this summer. (Kirsten Dobroth/KMXT)

Dining options can be few and far between in small communities – particularly when they’re off the road system and supplies are difficult to source. But an eatery that opened in downtown Kodiak this winter is dishing up meals with a special connection to the island.

On recent a snowy Wednesday morning, the kitchen at Nuniaqhadn’t opened for the day yet, but it was already buzzing.

Dozens of boxes were lined up on the counter, waiting to be filled with to-go orders. Country music pumped out of the speakers, and the restaurant’s owner, Melissa Berns-Svoboda, was icing a golden brown tray of cinnamon rolls that she just pulled from the oven.

Berns-Svoboda has run a catering business out of itinerant kitchen spaces in Kodiak over the years. She upgraded to a brick and mortar late last year, where she now dishes up take-away brunch and lunch orders. She also occasionally offers dinner. She’s planning on a bigger grand opening in late May timed with Kodiak’s Crab Festival, when she’ll open a sit-down dining space inside the restaurant.

“Nuniaq” means Old Harbor in Alutiiq – that’s the village where Berns-Svoboda grew up, on the southeast side of the island. She proudly advertises her business as being woman and Native owned, saying she wants to empower other Native women pursue their dreams.

Cooking has been a lifelong passion.

“I mean that’s just part of growing up in a big family,” she said. “My mom was always in the kitchen cooking and being a young girl and the eldest of four that was kinda my role being right there alongside my mom.”

That role later evolved to include prepping meals on the boat when she started fishing commercially with her dad a few years later.

As the head of a busy commercial kitchen now, Berns-Svoboda still works alongside members of her family. Her cousin Chance Christiansen was behind the counter and stirring a big pot of chowder that morning.

“I think it was just a village thing, everybody is always cooking together,” said Christiansen. “Everybody would all go over and everybody would help with all the families coming together.”

Traditional recipes from Old Harbor, like soups, chowders and perok pockets, which are kind of like flaky, salmon filled pies, are on Nuniaq’s menu now. Recipes for staples like bread come from passed-down family traditions.

Berns-Svoboda sources ingredients from local food producers when she can, including produce from growers in Old Harbor and seasonal seafood from Kodiak fishermen and processors. She said it’s all made her a savvy business owner.

“Living in a village, being on a boat, you have limited ingredients, you have limited access to things and so you learn to be a little more creative,” said Berns-Svoboda.

She said she likes to jazz up familiar recipes to showcase both her creativity as a chef and local flavors. Menu items like the Sugpiaq tacos have been one of her best sellers.

“We just took a spin on the Indian taco and we use our traditional breads and make a taco out of it – I think it’s fun,” said Berns-Svoboda.

By the time the clock is creeps toward opening, the phone has been ringing off the hook. Berns-Svoboda seems to be everywhere at once – bouncing from the meat slicer to a second tray of cinnamon rolls that need icing. Somewhere in the middle she assembles a food processor.

She dumps a bag of flour into a bowl and throws in a stick of butter. There isn’t a measuring cup in sight, but she said that’s no problem. All her food is measured in love. Just like how she learned in Old Harbor.