Beyond the Park
Chef Laura Cole
Tucked away on the Parks Highway, chef and owner Laura Cole’s 229 Parks Restaurant & Tavern doesn’t exactly scream come eat here! If anything, it’s easy to drive right on by with no idea the restaurant exists. “We have a sign the size of a postage stamp,” jokes Cole. The restaurant also sits closer to seasonal businesses that cater to Denali National Park crowds than to any population of regular restaurant goers. Yet Cole and her staff don’t just pull in summer tourists (though they certainly do that). They’ve made the restaurant a destination in its own right, with plenty of fans who—once the summer crowds have disappeared—drive 131 miles from Fairbanks to eat dinner or Cole’s much-lauded brunch. She estimates that a third of her customers drive down from Fairbanks on a regular basis. “It is beyond die-hard,” she says. Now the rest of Alaska—and the country—is catching on.
Cole was a semi-finalist for the 2016 James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northwest. In late March, she cooked a sold-out dinner for a small group of diners in the back room of Anchorage’s South Restaurant + Coffeehouse. When she asked who in the room had been to 229 Parks, just a few hands went up. Anchorage-ites tend to head down the Seward Highway for entertainment, not four hours up to the Denali area. But after a multi-course dinner that included plenty of diners kvelling over dishes like crips chicken skin crackers topped with delicate pieces of black cod, unagi glaze, and spring-bright pea greens, as well as cod (local, of course) and handmade tangerine semolina noodles in a delicate morel mushroom tea, it seemed unlikely that most in the room wouldn’t truck on up the highway in the near future.
A week later, Cole put those dishes to work feeding some of New York City’s most avid eaters during a $170-per-person sold-out dinner at the James Beard Foundation’s Beard House. It was one of those rare times when lower 48 diners celebrated Alaskan chefs as much as the state’s seafood. But Alaskans are a tenacious bunch and, as Cole made clear to the room after the South dinner, this wouldn’t be the last the lower 48 heard of her.
Upon meeting Cole, it’s surprising to learn that she wasn’t born in Alaska. Raised in the suburbs of Detroit, Cole received a degree in mental health and social work from the University of Michigan. That’s where she met Land Cole, son of the owners of Camp Denali, a remote wilderness lodge that sits in the middle of Denali National Park. After graduating, Laura and Land returned to Alaska and worked together the lodge. Her introduction to cooking came by chance. When a job opened in the lodge’s kitchen, Cole took it. “I loved the atmosphere of the kitchen, being this warm and welcoming place,” she explains.
Feeling like she had more to learn, especially about the science behind cooking, Cole’s next stop was the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. She also took a job in the kitchen at The Mill at Simon Pearce in Quechee, Vermont. “They flew their flour in from Ireland. Foragers came to the door every day. I was so inspired by the dedication that they showed to their ingredients,” she says. After culinary school, Cole decided it was time to move beyond the lodge. Far beyond. Her plan: leave Alaska (with Land, of course). His plan: stay in the state.
While they debated where they would live, the couple mixed things up by heading off on adventures, including a season at the Amundsen- Scott South Pole station. She was the cook and he was the carpenter. “It allowed me to do anything I wanted to do, because [the people there] were so excited,” she says. “You never had to worry about calories because everybody was burning it off, so you could make all-butter brioche doughnuts. Then you could do an announcement – ‘fresh doughnuts,’ and people would just flock [to the kitchen].”
That experience helped her say yes when, in the early 2000s, Land offered up a new plan: stay in Alaska and he would build her a restaurant, dream kitchen included. “It was just craziness. It was just wild, youthful ambition,” she says.
They began construction in 2003 and opened in 2005. “There were so many hearts and hands that went into building that restaurant that I decided I was never going to let people down,” says Cole.
She keeps her staff lean to help keep costs—and menu prices— down. The summer staff: 15. The winter? Just 3—cooking and serving a from-scratch menu for 60 to 80 covers a night. “I work over 100 hours a week in the restaurant, and I never would ask anybody to work harder than I work. People feel proud when they're working for somebody if they see them working. I clean my own bathrooms at the restaurant. There is not a job that is above or beneath anybody there,” says Cole.
Still, it took Cole some time to open her eyes to the Alaska beyond her restaurant. Though she was fully dedicated to using local ingredients from purveyors like Alaska Flour Company and Archipelago Farms, she wasn’t involved with Alaska’s food issues beyond the restaurant and her immediate area. But it was the bond between Alaskans - and the way they help each other out—that opened her eyes. “It's lots of hands across the state,” she says, citing a recent example of farmers who couldn’t deliver her supply of microgreens because their pig went into labor. “Somebody else was on their way up to Fairbanks for a photo shoot, didn't know us at all, and packed it up,” she says.
Inspired by that spirit of community, Cole is now getting involved with organizations, including the Alaska Food Policy Council, to talk about food issues around the state. She encourages other chefs to think more about what they can do with what’s available in Alaska rather than sticking with large-scale food distributors and a pre-existing menu that may not gibe with local foods.
"I just think it is ridiculous for our state to continue to have such a heavy reliance on foodstuff from elsewhere when there is such a growing, strong and vibrant community of folks that are trying to have success with small scale ranching and farming in state,” says Cole.
When it comes down to defining Alaska’s cuisine, Cole thinks the state is just starting to cut its teeth and she’s excited to see where it will go. “I have huge hopes.”