In a meat -- make that salmon -- and potatoes community, Lori Chase, owner of The Chase is Over Catering, has learned that it takes a little bit of time, but in the end Kenai Peninsula residents are willing to test their palates when the opportunity arises.
"I do my best to throw in a little twist. There is a balance between meat and potatoes," said Chase, who added that her list of appetizers are a testament to her creativity.
Her menu includes traditionals such as lasagna, but it also contains tantalizing yet difficult to pronounce offerings like spanikopita and brie en brioche. While her customers may have been initially hesitant, dishes like her signature Sonoma chicken are now favorites. Still, Chase said she also struggles with convincing peninsula residents that catering is an affordable option.
Chase said she thinks the addition of The Food Network to the cable lineup combined with Martha Stewart's ability to bring culinary art to the everyday consumer is beginning to have a trickle-down effect on what the community wants from a caterer.
"This is a young community," she said. "It'll happen here, with the type of people that are here, it'll happen in Kenai."
If the growth of her business is any indicator, bringing a new twist to dining on the peninsula has served Chase well. She opened her catering company in 1997, after spending one year at the Hilton in Anchorage, two at Land's End in Homer and one at Alaska Fishing Adventures in Kenai.
In her first full year of operation, Chase tripled her profits. In 1999, profits grew by 300 percent again.
While 2000 saw only a slight growth, 2001 was no different than the first few years, although Chase catered fewer weddings because a lot couples of opted for a do-it-yourself approach.
But she said she is looking forward to 2002 being a banner year for weddings, which might be beneficial considering Chase's corporate accounts are starting to scale back.
"It's a temporary situation," she said, referring to the effects of Sept. 11. "Everybody is hurting a little right now."
Chase, though, is taking it all in stride. She maintains a steady flow of customers, offering services that fill a void, by constantly re-evaluating her business and altering it to cater to the needs of peninsula communities.
In the summer of 2001, when weddings were slow, she developed a party platter service for those on a tighter budget. Adapting to the lure of Alaska's summer, she bought all the equipment -- including an industrial barbecue -- to cater corporate and community picnics.
Chase was 11 years old when she first decided the culinary arts were calling her name. Motivated in part by her mother's distaste for cooking, she began to take charge in the kitchen.
By the time she was 12 or 13, her family, after enduring Chase's experimentation, began to give her cookbooks for Christmas.
"It was what I was into, tastes, food, flavor," she said. "I love to read cookbooks. My favorite pastime is to read, front to back, cookbooks."
Now, her initial inspirations may still come in part from her perusals of favorite or new cookbooks, but Chase's creations are her own. She has taken to carrying a small tape recorder in her car so any recipe epiphanies can be documented before they disappear.
"I have my most brilliant ideas in the car. You're able to let your mind focus on other things while driving."
When it comes to trying new things, her staff complains about having to play guinea pig, but it is important to let others ring in with their opinions, she said.
"Even though I've liked them, you're not feeding just yourself," said Chase, who admits she has given up on a few recipes after enough bad reviews.
In the end though, Chase said, her love for cooking is the reason she is in the business.
"I love what I do, and if you love it, it'll show in your work."
While she may love her job, Chase has hit a few bumps in her path to success.
"Last year taught me that I needed to be hands-on. When I was (in the kitchen), that was when I was creative," she said.
Innovation is something that Chase seems to thrive on. She admits to dreams of owning her own restaurant, but those aspirations are fueled mainly by her desire to interact more with her guests.
"The one thing that I am craving most is to be a hostess. I would like to be able to communicate to my guests. Now, I'm in the kitchen and that's it."
Chase's dreams are going be realized in the near future. Together with her business and life partner, Cheney McLennan, she has plans to construct a lodge and cabins on a 5-acre plot in Kenai that will enable her to do more catering on-site.
The facilities will accommodate indoor and outdoor weddings, corporate and community functions and intimate dinners, during which Chase will finally have an opportunity to play hostess.
Further into the future, Chase said, her plans depend upon what the community needs and can support.
For four years she owned a wedding consulting company, the first Chase is Over, with her sister in Seattle. While she enjoyed her work there immensely, especially selling wedding dresses, Chase has not had much response to her attempts at starting a similar business on the peninsula.
"I love to do weddings," she said. "But there it was a whole different economy. It was fun. You've got people on their happiest day."
Despite not being able to coordinate weddings as much as she would like, Chase said she is content with her life here on the peninsula. She tried Anchorage and Homer and ended up right in the middle -- exactly where, she said, she believes she was meant to be.
"I love it more than being in Seattle. Down in the states there is so much more competition. It is overwhelming. This community is so generous to me. I would not be here today without the Kenai and Soldotna communities."
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