DISH with Laura Cole
If you don’t know the name Laura Cole, you will soon. The Alaska chef’s upward trajectory began in 2016 when she was named a semifinalist for Best Chef Northwest by the James Beard Foundation. She and her Denali National Park restaurant, 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern, received a nomination again in 2017.
Now, she will be coming to homes across the world. On Dec. 7, Cole makes her TV debut on season 15 of Bravo’s Top Chef.
She described it all as a wild ride during a phone call while traveling for events leading up to Thursday’s premiere. (She was in an airport standing next to a window for better cell service, both of us repeating, “Can you hear me now?”)
We spoke about her experience on the show, the rise of celebrity chefs, and her ineffably genuine personality.
I want to start off with some of your other accolades. You’ve been named a James Beard Foundation semifinalist for the past two years as Best Chef Northwest. What was it like to earn that first nod and then again the next year?
It’s been really exciting. I just am in love with Alaska and Alaska cuisine and I think it’s just amazing that the state is finally getting some recognition that is well-deserved, statewide. The fact that I got selected, I’m really proud of it. I have a huge admiration for the James Beard Foundation and to be part of that tribe is something I’ve always dreamed about.
Since earning that recognition, you were tapped for Top Chef. Can you describe getting that first contact?
I thought it was a joke. I thought my staff was playing a joke on me. I really couldn’t believe it. It was in the heart and dark of winter. You know, typical March. It was like 30 below zero and Top Chef called and they were like, “Do you want to do the show? Have you ever considered it?” It took me a couple of days to verify that it was legitimate and that it wasn’t a joke.
You’ve had to keep everything about the show a secret. Is it killing you not to talk about it?
We are thick as thieves, the cast on that show, and it’s been really great to keep our family from the show as just our family on the show. I was really busy the minute show wrapped. I went back to work at the restaurant and everything has been so busy. But it’s this delicious little secret that we all have. We have our secret family and that’s been really nice to just keep it as us for a little while.
Can you give us any hints or tell us any stories about what happens in this season?
I can tell you that there are a lot of twists, a lot of ups and downs, all the feels — there’s a lot of crying. There were fantastic friendships made and all of us walked away enriched by the experience. The show airs December 7 and it’s every week thereafter for 16 weeks.
There have been celebrity chefs since Julia Child, Jacques Pepin, and James Beard. But for the past several years in the restaurant industry, chefs have risen to rock-star status that they’ve really never seen before. Some people credit it to Top Chef, reality TV and these cooking competitions. Do you feel the same that this has played into our consciousness of chefs as celebrities?
I think that Alaska has a very different perspective on it because a lot of people in Alaska don’t have television. They don’t watch as much television as in the Lower 48. I think that for me, going on the show was this opportunity for collaboration with all of these other chefs that I have been so anxious to learn from and be a part of. I think that for other people there definitely was an aspect of achieving that rock-star status or television status.
Television is hard. It’s not something that I was comfortable with. I think the true rocks of this industry remain not necessarily television celebrity chefs — Alice Waters, Ruth Reichl, Marcus Samuelsson, who has done quite a bit of TV, but that’s not where his chops lie. You know, Thomas Keller. There’s a lot of people who do little things to help promote their message more, but it really comes down to how well you can cook.
Some of these celebrity chefs are hardly in the kitchens of their restaurants, with appearances, book tours, and stuff like that. Do you think you would go down that path and trust 229 Parks to another chef if you had to go on the road?
I would love to trust my restaurant to another chef so I could go and collaborate more or open a second restaurant or that sort of thing, but not necessarily to go promote. It’s hard. I got into this business because I love to cook. That’s what I do and and that’s where I get the most pleasure. So it’s kind of selfish of me to hide in my kitchen, but that’s where I’m the happiest.
We are just hours away from the premiere of the show and you’re on the precipice of life-altering fame. Are you ready for that? Do you have a mantra to keep yourself centered or are you freaking out?
No, I’m not freaking out. I live in Denali National Park, Alaska. (laughs) So I’ve been re-centered and grounded. I have huge admiration and love for my staff and have already been relatively sold out for the nights we’ve been open the last couple years. So this may make things a little more difficult, but won’t change the operations at the park. It’s an opportunity to share Alaska with the Lower 48 which I really am excited about.
And it opens up a lot of conversations in state amongst chefs ... I hope to continue those collaborations and that we can really make an effort to very strongly define Alaska cuisine. We should have our own cuisine. We’re not Pacific Northwest. We’re not Hawaiian. We’re Alaskan.
You’ve gotten involved with organizations like the Alaska Food Policy Council; encouraging other chefs and restaurateurs to choose local foods and talking about sustainability. How do you feel about how far we’ve come? Where do you think we still have work to do as a food industry in the state?
I think we’ve come a long way. Go back to statehood and Alaska was mostly self-sustainable ... We’ve lost sight of some of those traditional ideas ... I think Alaska would be better if we could get back to that for a lot of people ... To live in Alaska and support a full circular economy is more valuable than a larger profit margin. I think that’s a tricky line to walk.
I admire how authentic you are. I read about you before I met you in Fairbanks recently, and I remembered you saying in an interview that you clean the bathrooms at your restaurant. Is that part of being from the Midwest and Detroit, or is that 100 percent Laura Cole?
(laughs) That’s 100 percent Laura Cole. I would never ask anybody to do something that I am not willing to do myself ... Nothing is beneath me … I like working harder. I like feeling alive and being respectful of all the gifts that are my life. I like sharing that with my employees and my patrons. It’s hands across the state. A lot of it is Alaska-driven. You need a lot of help, a lot of times due to road conditions, transportation conditions, availability, accessibility.
I have some neighbors of mine and somebody was drunk-driving on the road and pulled over into their driveway and went into their house at 2 a.m. We live far away from the police and [my neighbors] made up a bed for them so they could sleep. I don’t know if I could do that, but I’d like to think I could. And that’s part of that spirit that I remind myself of in everything that I do.
Chef Laura Cole (second from left) sits with fellow "cheftestants" during the first episode of Top Chef season 15. Photo by Paul Trantow/Bravo.
Tell me: What’s the guilty pleasure that winds up in your grocery cart?
Without a doubt, it’s Funyuns. It’s a fun onion. There’s no way around it. It’s so good and it’s so bad for you. (laughs) It’s a brilliant, horrible snack.
What’s in your fridge right now?
I have like five different kinds of sparkling water. I don’t know why. I’m just super addicted to that. I have fresh juiced ginger because it’s winter and it’s a good base for everything. I have a lot of broth, bone broth. I have some old heels of bread and a variety of different little bits of cheese I can’t get rid of and a whole wall of condiments.
What’s next for you?
I’ve been doing a lot of events ... I am working on next season’s menus and farmer contracts. I’m trying to continue some work with the Alaska Food Policy Council. Some collaboration dinners in Anchorage and I open the restaurant back up in February.
What is your favorite memory from your experience on Top Chef?
There are so many fantastic ones ... but it would have to be the first time walking into the studio kitchen that I’d watched on television for so long, and looking around at all these people that I didn’t know yet. I was terrified and intimidated. And thinking, “Holy s---. I’m really here. I’m here.” If there is ever a surreal moment, that was it for me. Just to look around and have them say, “Camera’s rolling!”
We have no clue how they’re editing it. None of us have seen anything from the show. I mean, we know how all the challenges went, but none of us have seen it. Through editing, they can tell the story in different ways. They have so much footage on us, so it’s going to be a surprise for all of us when we watch it.
The new season of Top Chef premieres Dec. 7, 2017 on Bravo at 10/9c. (GCI schedule shows it at 9 p.m. AKST) Join us online for Edible Alaska’s digital watch party as we’ll be live tweeting and rooting for #TeamLaura on social media!
Some questions in this interview have been edited for clarity.