Feeding the Masses: A Look In The Kitchen At Kenai Catering

The crew at Kenai Catering prepares Thanksgiving dinner at the Kenai Merit Inn.

Aroud this time of year, home cooks come to realize the logistical challenges of assembling a memorable meal for a big group of people. For the team at Kenai Catering, it’s just called another day at the office.

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It’s 10 a.m. And Steve England is thinking lunch.

In less than two hours, all that food will have to be ready for hungry kids coming to the Kenai Merit Inn from Aurora Borealis. England and wife Bobbi operate Kenai Catering out of the Merit Inn, that’s the home turf, but they cater all over the place.

As a reporter, I’ve found my self at a lot of the events they work, and from the sounds of the kitchen, they seem to always be having the most fun. Steve says the crowd they’re serving today is the perfect size.

“We’ve worked at hotels with holiday buffets serving upwards of 500-600 people for Chistmas and Thanksgiving, upwards of 1,200 for Easter and Mother’s Day. So, we’ve got the high-volume knowledge that will help us grow.”

Steve handles most of the chef’s duties, and that’s what everyone calls him in the kitchen. Bobbi handles the details. Running down the list of 15 separate items that will be presented, from the roast turkey to the marshmallows for hot chocolate, Bobbi directs the staff.

“Do me a favor, we need to make sure we have backup hot chocolate, the mini marshmallows and the cider ready to go out, because these kids are going to hit it,” Bobbi tells one of her servers.

The Englands have been in kitchens and serving food for about three decades, in some way or another. Having their own catering business means they get to really perfect some of their favorite recipes, like today’s roasted turkey, but also experiment when a client is looking for something different. Bobbi says that in the food world, new and different is all relative.

“Since we’ve been on the Peninsula, we’ve been able to bring our experience at hotels to the area. Cafe rounds. They’re now known as cafe rounds, we called it baron of beef. It’s basically the hindquarter of a cow and the first time we did it down here, no one had seen it. And we were doing those for Sunday brunch at the Red Line hotels 25 years ago.”

With about forty five minutes until lunch, things are picking up in the kitchen. The mood gets a little more serious.  Sara Williams is one of the servers. She’s getting stacks of cups and silverware together. She says setting up for events is an intricately timed dance.

“When you’re new, it’s a lot of rush around, rush around, rush around. But then, once you know the deal…somebody new would take two hours to set the room. We set the room in less than an hour.”

She says it’s a chore, but a chore they all seem to enjoy.

Just after the guests arrive, before the first plate has been filled, the power goes out.

This is where that home field advantage came in to play. Plenty of candles to light the tables, and the servers donned their LED headlamps to get through the meal. Actually, with all the food prepared and ready just as the power went out, it wasn’t a terribly big deal.

“It went fabulous! Monet’s serving fresh pumpkin pie and everybody loved the food. It didn’t affect us at all.”

There’s one Thanksgiving dinner out of the way. Now, for the leftovers.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Managers, Residents Discuss Brown Bears

Supervisory Fish and Wildlife Biologist John Morton presents population numbers for Kenai Brown Bears at the Gilman River Center.

Residents and hunters met with state and federal game management officials Monday night in Soldotna to talk about this year’s brown bear hunt. State and federal officials almost agree on how to manage the bear population, but the difference is an important one.

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It’s important because where the two sides disagree over the numbers is where the decision is made to suspend hunting. This year, US Fish and Wildlife made that decision when the count hit 70; more than ten percent of the estimated population for the entire Peninsula.

There have always been disagreements between state and federal agencies about how many bears are needed to sustain the population, or put another way, how many it’s okay to hunt without wiping them out.

But it got even more interesting in 2010, when a more definitive population estimate of around 600 bears came out. Biologist John Morton of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge said at Monday’s meeting they had been anticipating the numbers to trend up, from 624 to 681 bears.

“By putting the regulatory framework into place, we’re killing 70 bears (annually) over three years, we’re knocking it from 624 down to 464, so about thirty percent. It’s a pretty big hit to the brown bear population.”

Part of the problem here is the different missions of the federal and state agencies. Managers on the Refuge have a very broad objective, simply to conserve wildlife and habitat. The state is more specific. It can put policies in place to manipulate populations for different reasons. Doug Vincent-Lang is the director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation.

“We agree that this year’s harvest of bears probably cannot be sustained indefinitely,” said Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the Alaska Division of Wildlife Conservation.

“These harvests were meant to be temporary, to address increased human-wildlife conflicts by taking those bears most likely causing difficulties, provide expanded harvest opportunities based on new Service population estimates and reduce or stabilize bear numbers.”

Board of Game chair Ted Spraker was also at the meeting, explaining why the Board opened up the bear hunt this year in the first place. He looked back at management strategies used in the 90’s, when the population was thought to be no more than 300 bears. Using those methods, he says the take of adult female bears, which was a top concern for the feds, could have been much higher.

“We live and die by the numbers, and that’s something that science dictates, and that’s something the Board looks at and we adhere to,” Spraker said.

Refuge biologists don’t so much live and die by the numbers, as much as use them to figure out what the natural balance of things should be, and try to manage to keep that natural balance. In a separate interview, Refuge manager Andy Loranger said numbers can’t tell the whole story. The bears plan an integral role in the health of the broader ecosystem.

“As an example, brown bears are very very critical in moving marine-derived nutrients from the marine and fresh water ecosystems that salmon use here on the Peninsula into the forested ecosystem.”

The role they play in Richard Link’s life has gotten bigger over the years. The Soldotna resident told the panel he’s done hoping the bears will just go away.

“I can assure you that there will not be any bears on my property that live. I’ve got grandkids around, and I’m not going to tolerate having those bears, and tell my kids they can’t go out and play on the lawn because the bears are around. And if you people think it’s fine to live with the bears, wait. Without the moose for the bears to eat, they’re going to get hungry and they’re going to eat something. And it won’t be long before it’s somebody’s child.”

Though not the only opinion in the debate over how to best Kenai brown bears, opinions like Link’s have been the most vocal, and will likely continue to be until the Board of Game again takes up south central issues in 2015.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Work On Soldotna Trails To Begin Soon

The Soldotna Parks and Recreation board has signed off on the department’s Trails Master Plan. The projects and improvements will be started over the next five years.

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This is a big plan, with a lot of steps to be taken over several years. And the funding sources for all these projects are far from certain. The plan lists several options for getting the money needed for paving sidewalks and adding staff to the Parks and Rec department. Grants are always an option. The Borough could be involved by creating a Service Area, which would provide operations funding for the Soldotna Sports Center.

Though trails and expanded outdoor recreation opportunities are at the heart of the Trails Plan, the remodeling of the Sports Center factors in as well. That area, from the Visitor’s Center to the Sports Center and through Centennial Park will all eventually be connected with trails. Parks and Recreation director Andrew Carmichael said at last week’s board meeting that work will be starting soon.

“We’ll be starting with the Sports Center Center-Centennial Park trail connection in about three weeks, with in-house crews, as soon as we get all the materials on site. The city crews will build 191 feet and after that we’ll contract for the ramp that will come up over the hill.”

At a public meeting about the plans this summer, Carmichael said versatility is at the heart of all these designs.

“You’re just trying to figure out how to make the best, diverse facility that will adapt to everyone.”

The city of Soldotna is looking to provide more recreation opportunities and be more pedestrian-friendly. Part the strategy for getting there is to put some resources into the city’s extensive trail system, which includes more than 50 miles of sidewalks and trails and nearly 500 acres of parks and other facilities. Over the next five years, more funding will go to winter maintenance of trails and adding on to existing parks. Aspen Park will get a dog park in 2015. Sidewalks are slated to be added to Riverview avenue a couple years later.

This is the fourth comprehensive look at trails and recreation in Soldotna since 1995. A Roads and Trails master plan was developed 12 years ago, and many of these projects are also included in the city’s 30 year master plan, adopted in 2011.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 


Ulti-MUTT Dog Show at KPC

Tyann Reed and Courtney Parker shelter their dogs Bo and Basil Lynn from the chilly temperatures outside KPC Friday.

Fridays power outage didn’t do anything to deter a handful of dog lovers at Kenai Peninsula College, who were there for the Student Union’s first dog show.

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Student Union president Teresa Cross was grilling hot dogs while dog owners milled about outside the Brockel Building on the KPC campus.

“We have the Ulti-mutt Dog Show. Any breed, any style, short, fat, skinny, we don’t care. He’s a mutt, he can come participate.”

Staff and faculty at the college served as judges, contemplating cuteness and costumes.

 A KPC students Tyann Reed and Courtney Parker had their eyes on the cuteness award, while they had their dogs, Bo and Basil Lynn, tucked into their coats.

“Basil is full of love and personality. She’s just my baby,” Parker said.

Debbie McCree and her five year old shi tzu are going after the best costume award, with Minnie dressed up like a reindeer, antlers and all.

“I thought she’d just take every prize there is,” McCree said with a laugh.

 


Diners Undeterred By Power Outage

Diners make their way through the buffet line Friday, lit by candles and headlamps. A power outage lasting several hours affected the entire Kenai Peninsula.

A power outage affecting the entire Kenai Peninsula and beyond slowed down Friday a bit for some folks. But at the Kenai Merit Inn, the show went on uninterrupted.

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Just after about 100 students from Aurora Borealis charter school filed into the dining room at the Merit Inn, the lights went out. I was there recording sounds for a different story, but got to watch the crew with Kenai Catering in action.

Luckily the food had already been prepared and was in chafing dishes ready to go. Under light of candle, headlamp and smartphone flashlight, lunch was served.

The outage hit shortly before noon Friday. Homer Electric Association spokesperson Joe Gallagher says it started with a problem at the Nikiski Generation Plant.

“It appears there was a piece of equipment that monitors fuel supply, and it malfunctioned, and the plant tripped off line.”

At the time of the outage, which hit 32,000 meters just between Sterling and Homer, HEA’s systems on the Kenai were isolated from the rest of the electrical grid in south central.

“Under normal circumstances, the transmission line between Anchorage and the Peninsula is providing power to the Peninsula, but that line was out of service due to an accident. So, all the power on the Peninsula was being provided by the Nikiski plant and the Bradley Lake hydroelectric facility.”

Gallagher says when the Nikiski plant went off line, it was a strong enough jolt to the system to trip the Bradley Lake plant as well.

And, even though they had to clean up and do dishes in the dark, Kenai Catering co-owner Steve England says things went well.

“Aside from Mother Nature throwing us a curveball, we think it went fabulous. The room’s fairly quiet out there because people are eating, and that’s always a good sign.”

For a peak at how Kenai Catering operates with the lights on, before the diners arrive, tune in next week.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Soldotna Teen Center To Open By Christmas

Jazi Larrow and Leah McCabe present their design ideas for the new Soldotna Teen Center, located in the former Radio Shack location on the Spur Highway.

After months of meetings, the new Soldotna Teen Center is looking at an opening date by the end of the year. Those who attended the most recent meeting got a look at what the inside of the Center could look like.

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They’re still taking measurements at the new teen center. The set up for the old Radio Shack in Soldotna just doesn’t lend itself to kids hanging out, watching movies and playing foosball.

Will they keep the high traffic carpet or go with laminate? Or something else? What about chairs? Lighting? Paint? Right now the walls are a mix of retail shelving panels and bright, pastels. Those are all questions addressed by the interior designs, drawn up and presented by students in one of Meggean Bos’ classes at SoHi.

Leah McCabe and Jazi Larrow worked together on a design that includes four flat screen televisions, with accompanying couches and chairs for each. Filling the middle of the space would be the game tables; pool, ping pong and, of course, the foosball.

McCabe and Larrow say the new center will offer a more entertaining venue for them and their peers to spend time at after school.

“Definitely not a school feeling. Much more relaxed,” McCabe said.

State Senator Peter Micciche fields questions at the new Soldotna Teen Center Thursday.

There are several concepts that will be considered. Some call for big, cushy chairs or sofas and low light, others call for stools and a more active atmosphere. Senator Peter Micciche, who has been one of the adults instrumental in securing a space for the Teen Center, was there, to get a few more details out these preliminary plans.

This former retail space will be able to accommodate upwards of 150 people, and will be used for dances, small concerts, movies and in general, just a place to hang out. A survey was conducted of teens to see what they’d be most likely to use the space for.  Funding for the Center is sort of medium-term. It’s a pilot program, with funding for three years, which came from a $225,000 state grant to the Soldotna Boys and Girls Club. Micciche said at the meeting they’d also be looking for someone to staff the center on a part-time basis.

“For the parent or the youth development professional who qualifies, it’s the perfect after school job.”

The plan is to have the Teen Center ready for business in time for Christmas.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


School District Sees Jump In 4 Year Graduation Rate

KPBSD Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater addresses a Kenai Chamber of Commerce meeting Wednesday at the Kenai Visitors Center.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District faces several unique, short term challenges, including declining enrollments and increased health care costs. But there are other areas where the future looks brighter.

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One of those bright spots is in Nikiski. Maybe.

‘What if a gas line goes to Nikiski? What would that mean for us?’ That’s a question Kenai Peninsula School District Superintendent Dr. Steve Atwater says he’s been getting a lot lately. Speaking to the Kenai Chamber of Commerce Wednesday, Atwater said Mt. View would likely see the most affect from a project like that.

“If we were to get a slug of new kids to come into our region (Mt. View) would be immediately overwhelmed. Say we got 30 or 40 new elementary kids in Kenai…we’d be forced, on a very short term basis, to do what we’ve done in the past; drag a portable into the playground area and you house kids there, which is not an ideal situation.”

Of course, that gas line and LNG plant, if they happen, could be years away. And while a sharp uptick in the student population wouldn’t be a bad problem to have, Atwater said overall, enrollment numbers are trending down across the district. But a higher percentage of students are earning their high school diploma within four years of entering ninth grade.

“In the last two years, we’ve had a little bit of a jump. About 80 percent of our kids make it across the stage after four years of high school. The state average is about 72 percent, but certainly we want to continue to work hard to get our kids through high school in four years.”

Atwater gives some credit for that increase to intervention programs started when recent graduating classes were in kindergarten and first grade, designed to make sure all students are reading by the end of first grade.

Technology will play a big role in reaching the district’s goals, Atwater says. Today’s students, by and large, live online. They’re connected. And while the district has taken what Atwater calls a conservative approach to bringing in new technology, catering to kids who are growing up with mobile devices in their hands will become more of a focus.

But that raises the question of access. Not every student has an iPad or a smartphone. But that doesn’t really matter. You can’t use those tools to their full capacity without access to the internet, and for students in the really rural parts of the district, they might not be able to get internet service.

“To expect that seamless, 24-7 environment, where you’re learning all the time or you can go get what you need all the time doesn’t exist for some of our families.”

He says other districts have agreements with internet service providers to hook up low income students, even at home, but the challenge in Alaska, getting internet service to those rural areas in the first place.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Coffee Table – Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager Andy Loranger

On this week’s Coffee Table, Shaylon Cochran speaks with Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Manager Andy Loranger about the mission of the Refuge and the challenges of reaching its goals.

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Governor Makes Disaster Declaration For Kenai Peninsula Flooding

 

Ground and surface water has washed out sections of several roads in the K-Beach area, including here at Bore Tide between Karluk and Kalgin.

Governor Sean Parnell has declared a state disaster for the Kenai Peninsula. In a press release Monday, Parnell said “Having been in Kenai when much of this disaster was unfolding, I personally witnessed the extensive damage taking place…These state recovery programs will speed up recovery efforts and help fill the void for the community.”

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre issued a local declaration on October 29th. That came after weeks of rising groundwater levels, that flooded septic systems and leech fields, and filled basements and crawl spaces in the area around K-Beach Road.

With the state declaration, recovery programs for public infrastructure and individual homes can be enacted. The Borough’s Emergency Management Coordinator, Scott Walden, told K-Beach residents at a recent meeting that the Borough’s role in recovery efforts was rather limited.

“Some of the things we could provide as a second class borough are not exactly what you wanted, and I wish we could have done more in some of those circumstances.”

The Borough is primarily responsible for its own roads and ditches and maintaining access to them. Several roads in the area are either on private property or have not been adopted by the Borough’s roads department.

With the state now involved, direct assistance to homeowners becomes a possibility, something the Borough and other municipalities couldn’t take on.

Though the K-Beach flooding has received the most attention, residents throughout the Borough, on both sides of the Inlet, have been dealing water issues.

State and Borough emergency managers will now work with residents to identify eligible applicants for the Individual Assistance Program.


Healthcare Navigators From Enroll Alaska Working At CPH

It’s been a rough six weeks for anyone dealing with the new health care law. Problems with the federal website have made it difficult for individuals to sign up. And the state-level organizations, like Enroll Alaska, haven’t had much better luck. But there’s help available for insurance shoppers on the Central Peninsula.

Navigators from Enroll Alaska are taking appointments for consultations over the next couple days at Central Peninsula Hospital. Tyann Boling is the Chief Operating Officer for Enroll Alaska. She says people looking for a plan on the exchange need to bring in specific information to find the right plan.

“For every individual that they want to get enrolled, they need to bring their social security numbers. They also need to bring in their tax information. Because government subsidy is based upon household income, and you can get that information off of W-2′s and things of that nature.”

Boling says the company enlisted local help to serve as navigators, who will have their work cut out for them. There are just a few weeks left to find a plan that will be on the books by the first of the year. People without approved coverage by then could face a penalty from the federal government.

“They need to be enrolled by December 15th in order for the plan to be in place by January 1st. So that’s what we’ll be doing (at CPH). Our agents there are local, one of them is from Kenai and one is from Soldotna.”

Enroll Alaska temporarily suspended its efforts to get people signed up for insurance just a few weeks after the initial roll out, citing the many computer glitches that have plagued the system. Navigators will be at CPH Wednesday, Thursday and Friday between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. You can set up an appointment by calling 855-385-5550.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-