In the kitchen with...

Chef Laura Cole of 229 Parks Restaurant & Tavern

For many chefs, the story begins with cherished recipes passed down in the family kitchen. For Laura Cole, executive chef and owner of 229 Parks Restaurant & Tavern in Denali National Park, it begins with a boy.

Twenty years ago, Laura followed her boyfriend to Alaska to work in his family’s two lodges in Denali. At the time, she was searching for a place that would feel like home. She found it in the kitchen.

“I fell in love with it instantly,” she says of those summers spent in the kitchen. “It was such a warm, welcoming environment, and it was just so cool to be able to create something that created so much happiness for people so quickly.”

Inspired, Laura enrolled in the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. An apprenticeship at the renowned Simon Pearce exposed her to the farm-to-table concepts that would later become the heart of her cooking. But rather than continue with Simon Pearce after graduation, Laura spent four months as a cook at Antarctica’s South Pole Station.

“(I needed) to ground myself a little bit and get in to where food really counts, where it’s definitely cooking for people who need it for sustenance and comfort,” she explains.

Laura continued to bounce back and forth between Denali and the East Coast until her boyfriend, who was born and raised in Alaska and wanted to settle down, made the ultimate proposal.

“He said, ‘What if I build you a restaurant?’ ” Laura recalls with a laugh. “I told him, ‘That’s never going to happen.’ ”

But her boyfriend (now husband) made good on that proposal, and together with family and friends built the restaurant that would become 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern.

Laura’s vision was a place for people to gather and connect, a nod to the family dinners that were a mainstay of her childhood. The dinners weren’t about the food, she says, but about coming together as a family with her parents and three siblings.

“We were allowed to bring whoever we wanted to the table, but we could never miss it,” she says. “It was just sort of that gathering place, and I loved that aspect of having that nurturing environment.”

Laura’s meals are more creative than those served at her family table, but she still uses food to forge connections. At her table, connections are made between those seated around the table, but also what’s on the table – and where it comes from – as well.

Everything Laura serves is organic, sustainably sourced and, whenever possible, Alaskan. A network of suppliers from across the state – fishermen in Homer, a reindeer herder in North Pole, even a peony farmer in Fairbanks – help her showcase the best of Alaska.

“Every single dish I make features an Alaskan ingredient,” Laura says. “Whether it’s harvested, foraged, ranched or fished, we are really trying to highlight what Alaska has to offer, and each flavor profile is designed to enhance those flavors.”

She also cooks to stretch perceptions of Alaskan cuisine beyond King crab, King salmon and halibut, highlighting some of the state’s lesser known, but equally delicious, offerings, like Dungeness and beard eye crab, Alaska octopus (a bycatch of halibut fishing), rockfish, rabbit and even reindeer, which she feels all receive too little attention in Alaskan kitchens.

The seasonality of her cooking means the restaurant’s menu changes to take advantage of what’s available on any given day. At the moment that’s berries, and Laura has fun with them, using lowbush cranberries to bring out the flavors of a Moroccan-inspired dish, or transforming lingonberries, which she says have a more distinct flavor than bog cranberries, into a cold soup.

She’s also had fun experimenting with spruce tips, grinding them into sugars for her house made marshmallows, or making spruce salt to use in brines.

If Laura’s number one piece of advice to home cooks is to use what’s available, her second is to have fun and simplify.

“Nothing should take 20 ingredients to make,” she says. “You should think about flavors you enjoy, and go and experiment. Don’t be intimidated.”

Her approach is working. She’s a two-time James Beard Foundation nominee for Best Chef: Northwest. While she’s yet to make it past the semi-finals, she said the prestigious award – known as the Oscars of the food world – is a door she’ll keep knocking on.

Whether it opens or not, Laura plans to continue learning and growing as a chef and showcasing Alaska’s bounty to visitors, something she considers a gift.

“What I do is cook, and it’s great that I can share my gift and people get it,” she says. “It’s a cool thing.”