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Chef connects with community through Denali-area restaurant

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Posted: Sunday, August 12, 2012 11:36 pm | Updated: 10:34 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

DENALI PARK, Alaska— It seemed like good karma last month when Laura Cole won the Denali Arts & Humanities Alliance raffle prize of two Alaska Airline tickets.

After all, Cole and her business, 229 Parks Restaurant and Tavern, have supported a myriad community activities — including the arts — since opening in 2005.

She and her husband, Land Cole, did not accidentally become involved in the community. That is one of their main missions.

“We really wanted some place we could participate and enhance and work with our community,” she said. “I feel like, every day, we have room to grow more with that.”

This week, 229 Parks Restaurant displays a sandhill crane art exhibit, along with the nearby Charles Sheldon Center. It hosted the Tri-Valley High School prom in May and has become a popular venue for winter outreach performances from Fairbanks Concert Association.

It’s not unusual to discover Cole hosting a cooking class for kids or planning a reception for neighbor Ree Nancarrow, poster artist this year for Fairbanks Summer Arts Festival. During the holidays, local children are treated to a cookie decorating day.

Through it all, she and her staff continue to offer an exceptional dining experience.

First lady Laura Bush ate here a few years ago with her girlfriends when they visited Alaska. The clientele has expanded statewide. This month, 229 Parks Restaurant is featured in a story about sustainability in Alaska Airlines Magazine.

“I want everyone to feel like they are special,” Cole said. “This is not necessarily a high standard; this should be the standard.

“When someone orders tea, they should have an individual pot of water to steep that tea as long as they want. Dessert should not be a slice of a big cake. It should be an individual cake made for that one person.”

“It’s a celebration; you’re going out.”

She believes 229 Restaurant’s success is in part a result of the organic ingredients used in cooking. Even the sodas are organic.

“Dried herbs and spices, we order bulk through United Natural Foods. They go by barge to Anchorage, then we freight up all those pallets for all summer long,” she said. “Our sea salt all comes from one company in Oregon; our teas come from one company in Colorado.”

“One thing I learned from my mother-in-law,” she said. “Is that the fact that we are in Alaska should never be an excuse. With a little hard work and talk, one on one, we get the product up here.”

Neighbors often help, delivering items from Anchorage, for example.

“Nancy Bale once came up the highway with my olive oil-roasted tomatoes from Italy,” Cole said.

She buys locally and in Alaska as much as she can.

This personalized approach and dedication to quality and sustainability has helped expand her network of professional colleagues and friends.

“We have met wonderful farmers, small-scale fishermen. The Alaska-grown program is blossoming because of businesses like ours,” she said.

Summer is busy at 229 Parks Restaurant. Cole closes for a few months in the fall and then returns for winter weekends, her favorite time.

“We’re still able to get great food, and this becomes a meeting place,” she said. “I have a nice warm place to go in the winter where people can still get homemade bread, great food. You can have a dinner party that’s not at your house, and you don’t have to cook or clean up.”

Beginning in January, she offers dinner on Fridays and Saturdays and brunch on Sundays. The restaurant closes early afternoon Sundays when the local community adjourns to a local frozen pond for skating.

Her interest in culinary began when she married Land Cole, whose family owns Camp Denali and North Face Lodge inside Denali National Park and Preserve. She worked at those resorts for about 12 years.

“I really liked the kitchen, the nurturing environment,” she said.

She decided she wanted to go to culinary school.

The couple moved East where, in nine months, she completed a two-year advanced placement program with the New England Culinary Institute. Meanwhile, her husband studied timber framing.

They divided their time among Denali and other places, including Antarctica. She also created pastries at the Marx Brothers Restaurant in Anchorage.

She was even invited to attend a pastry program in Paris.

Pastries, apparently, are her first culinary love.

“But it’s not sustainable here,” she said. “Land is an Alaska boy, and he wanted to live here.”

He spearheaded building the restaurant. Son Oliver, now 8, was born about the time the restaurant opened. After struggling with naming a child, naming a restaurant seemed overwhelming.

The name seems perfect now — 229 Parks, named for the milepost at 229 Parks Highway — but it took some brainstorming to agree on that name. It was neighbor Ann Whitehead, now Ann Adema, who suggested it.

Cole has no plans to expand the restaurant, but she always considers ways to improve.

This year, they built an outdoor wood-fired brick oven. She is looking forward to experimenting with that throughout the winter months.

Every summer, she stores potatoes, cabbage, leeks, argula, basil, so those local product will be available in meals for customers even in the dead of winter.

She looks forward to more great cooking, and more connections with the local community. The future appears limitless.

“We made a commitment to a lot of people and asked them to trust us,” she said. “There isn’t an end in sight for that.”

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