Friday, July 10, 2015

Interview with Alaskan Chef Laura Cole, Owner and Executive Chef of 229 Parks

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The following interview was made possible by the NW Tastemaker, a culinary travel publication forthcoming from Northwest Travel Magazine. To read more interviews with the best chefs in the Pacific Northwest, visit Northwest Travel Magazine and TableTalkNorthwest.com.

Laura Cole, Owner and Executive Chef of 229 Parks

Alaska has one of the most challenging seasons in the Pacific Northwest for growing fruits and vegetables, and Chef Laura Cole embraced it with a pioneering spirit. In 2005, she opened 229 Parks, a restaurant located just south of the Denali National Park and Preserve entrance on Alaska Highway 3. Through developing mutually beneficial relationships with Alaskan farmers, fisherman and gamers—not to mention neighbors who sometimes bring back key ingredients from trips to Anchorage—Chef Cole serves a menu defined by Alaska's unique culinary offerings. Seafood is at the forefront—whether Alaskan halibut or Alaskan razor clams—and harnessing the power of Alaska's 24 hours of photosynthesis in the summer, the restaurant grows many of its vegetables onsite, including lemon grass, bok choy, and napa cabbage. 229 Park's success is a model for localvore cuisine in Alaska. Chef Cole holds a master certificate for confections from the Ritz Escoffier L’Ecole de Gastronome in Paris and a degree from the New England Culinary Institute.

1. How do you describe Northwest cuisine in Alaska?

We are a restaurant looking to define Alaskan Cuisine. In regard to the Greater Northwest, our cuisine is based on our shared waters and the bounty it provides. Our seafood, sea kelp, sea weeds, etc. But our topography and our climates are vastly different. Much of what I think of as Northwest cuisine is not only dominated by plentiful, sustainable, fresh seafood, but also by the bounty of orchard fruits, grapes, vineyards and wines. Here in Alaska, our cuisine takes on a decidedly more Nordic note that comes from our local harvests, both wild and cultivated, and on our short, yet intense, growing season.

2. Who are six of your favorite purveyors that you regularly work with?

We have many hands helping with wild harvests, including wild mushrooms, berries, spruce tips, ramps, tender fireweed, fiddleheads, rose hips, juniper and chamomile.

Denali Organic Growers is our go-to for much of our cultivated harvests. They grow about 80 percent of all of our purchased vegetables, and they grow them completely off the grid. It's 100 percent rain-water fed, which means that we have to account for dramatic climate changes and the occasional moose grazing. Working with theses guys has taught us the importance of not being too rigid with menu creation. Being able to work with what is the best harvest for that day takes precedence.

Alaskan Barley Company is our go-to grain provider. They are the only grain producers in the state right now. We use their barley, barley flour, and barley couscous. We use their barley flour in every baked good we make, including our ├ęclair shells. It is wonderful to have this available to us in the interior.

Moonstone Farms— This is a small family farm that is growing everything they can. They just started to get into small scale ranching, too. Their product is excellent, and they continue to strive for excellence in all they do.

Alaskan Birch Company— We love their birch syrup. It is great in both sweet and savory applications, and it definitely gives a distinctive, Alaskan flavor. 

Sagaya Seafood— They insure we get the best, freshest, highest quality seafood that Alaska has to offer.

Rachels Ginger Beer— This is a Seattle company that we love and use for inspiration in creating our own sodas. We certainly wouldn't make our own, if we could use theirs. They're just the best.

3. When you go out for a nice meal, what are two or three of your favorite spots?

In Seattle, I love Lark. It's a great, small-scale restaurant that has an inspired menu and strong commitment to sourcing locally. In Anchorage, Torchon, a new bistro, is utilizing the whole pig and creating very inspired dishes.

4. Who are two other Northwest chefs that you admire?

Kate Consenstein— Although she is not a professional chef, she comes from a scallop fishing family, and she's been a life-long advocate for Alaskan Seafood. She has worn many hats to promote this; formerly, she served as marketing director for Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, and currently, she is running her own PR firm, Rising Tide Productions. She continues to challenge and inspire me everyday to be the absolute best in supporting a better Alaska through our food future and cuisine.

Aaron Apling Gilman— He is a truly inspired Alaskan Chef. He's pushing the conversation forward to help Alaska be a more culinary self-sustained state. He's always inspirational and completely dedicated to a tradition of excellence.

5. In your opinion, is there an area of Northwest cooking that doesn't receive enough attention?

I feel the area of Northwest cooking that gets most overlooked is the bounty of the natural land harvests we have. There is always such a strong view and voice regarding seafood, but we have so much more to offer. The conversation can change from protein-based plates to protein-enhanced plates.

6. Looking toward the future, what are you most excited to do in the kitchen?

The possibilities are endless. Here in Alaska, our waters are still relatively pure. Our ground has not been overrun with harmful pesticides, and our livestock has not been affected by an overuse of antibiotics. I look forward to the change in conversation from quantity to quality. To a wider understanding of farmers and other purveyors as true artisans of our land and waters.

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