Chef Katherine O’Leary-Cole has only been in Alaska for two months, and her ambitious menu offers something fresh for diners at Cooper Landing’s Kingfisher Roadhouse.
Nearly half of the food is vegetarian, with one whole side of the menu offering plant-based options, most of which could also be considered vegan or gluten-free. She was offered the job, her first chef de cuisine position, in January and spent every spare second she had planning out her menu. Her yearslong cooking career and love of plant-based foods influenced the menu.
“My long history of being interested in plant-based foods started the moment in clicked in my 8-year-old brain that shrimp have a poop line, because they were animals,” she said. “That’s it, I love animals. No meat, ever.”
Her stance on eating meat has since relaxed — she used to refuse things like chicken stock and marshmallows — but now will occasionally indulge in a meat delicacy such as sashimi or foie gras. “I gravitate towards plant-based meals, but will definitely eat a chicken entrée I mistakenly cooked for a wrong ticket pickup or eat a beef stew if my grandmother cooks it for Christmas,” she said.
O’Leary-Cole didn’t go to culinary school, but she’s spent years in the kitchen. She previously worked at a restaurant in Arkansas, called Tusk and Trotter. She spent time teaching an Italian-themed wine pairing and vegetarian four-course dinner class at a culinary store in Arkansas. She planned a series of vegetarian open-fire dinners as a pop-up restaurant that took place at her cabin. She traveled around to different cities working in the best restaurants she could find. She also volunteered to cook a vegetarian dinner for 300 guests to support her local culinary school.
When plans in Arkansas fell through, O’Leary-Cole had no obligations, and sought a new adventure in Alaska.
“I was trying to think ‘what is the coolest thing I could do with job, my life, my work’ and I thought ‘I’m going to go to Alaska,’” she said. “I had heard tidbits here and there from people who’d come up for seasonal jobs and how beautiful it was.”
The very first Alaska job ad she found was Dominic Bauer’s, owner of Kingfisher, which has been in Cooper Landing for over 20 years.
Offering as many vegetarian options on a menu in Alaska as O’Leary-Cole has comes with its challenges. At the restaurant she was working at in Arkansas, which she says was in a somewhat rural area, she said she got food deliveries every day of the week, and several grocery stores to choose from if something was needed last minute. In Cooper Landing, her closest fully stocked grocery store is an hour away and produce orders come only once a week.
“When that produce gets here, often it has traveled thousands of miles, resulting in much higher food costs, lower quality produce and lower environmental sustainability,” she said. “As a chef committed to the idea of offering a diverse plant-based menu alongside traditional roadhouse fare such as burgers, pot pies and brownies with ice cream, these produce challenges simply mean that it’s time to get creative.”
She’s also challenged herself with creating vegetarian dishes meat eaters will be interested in.
“While only a small portion of the population may consider themselves strictly vegetarian, there are many more people that consider their health and the health of the environment when they make their dining choices,” she said. “It’s time for mainstream restaurants and chefs to move past hummus, salads and portabella mushrooms as the only choice for those looking for an alternative to meat.”
She said she’s been surprised how those plant-based options are being received. She said close to half of customers order off the vegetable-based menu.
O’Leary-Cole also pulls some inspiration for her menu from her southern heritage, like her cornbread with bacon jam.
Kingfisher is only open for the season and come September, the restaurant will shut their doors and O’Leary-Cole will return to the Lower 48, where she’ll pick up her van in Seattle and drive cross-country. She said she’s planning to return next summer.