In the kitchen with…

Chef Colette Nelson of Ludvig’s Bistro

Story by Amy Newman
Photography by Pundit Productions

Colette Nelson, head chef and owner of Ludvig’s Bistro in Sitka, never dreamed she would one day own her own restaurant. Despite her cooking background – her father was in the restaurant business, and Colette held a variety of jobs in different restaurants as she worked her way through high school and college – she wanted nothing to do with the food business.

Instead, she attended University of Washington first as a pre-med, and then Spanish studies, major. The degree switch brought her to Sitka during summer breaks, where she worked on a fishing boat in order to earn money for a study abroad program in Spain.

The experience abroad awakened her love of food.

“I fell in love with the cooking side of life,” she says of her year spent studying and traveling throughout southern Spain, Italy, Morocco and Greece.

Colette completed her degree when she returned home and worked her way up from line cook to executive chef at a variety of restaurants, learning as much as she could about being a chef. When she found herself missing Alaska, she accepted a position as head chef at a Sitka fishing lodge. But unable to cook the Mediterranean food that was her passion, Colette says she “kind of fell out of love with cooking.”

Things changed when a friend approached her with the idea to start a catering business in town.

“All of a sudden, I was able to start preparing the Mediterranean food that I loved,” she says. “I realized I could balance that with Alaska seafood, and it was a great marriage.”

In 2002 Colette took a chance and opened Ludvig’s in a space that had once been a delicatessen. The same delicatessen, it turned out, where she had worked as a baker one summer 15 years earlier. Her work as a cook, and her life in Sitka, had finally come full circle.

Colette enjoys “simple food combinations” and strives to maintain the traditions of Mediterranean cuisine in all her meals – “the acids, the lemons, the peppers,” which, she says, pair well with Alaska seafood.

Finding great pleasure in knowing where her food comes from, Collette buys potatoes, kale, asparagus and other seasonal vegetables from local growers. With the exception of the calamari, she serves only Alaska seafood, fresh off the boat whenever possible.

Using fresh, local ingredients is an easy way to elevate home cooking, and Colette advises cooks to “spend the extra money” to buy the best quality ingredients they can afford.

Preparation is another key to success in the kitchen, she says. Read through the entire recipe before starting to cook to ensure you have all the ingredients, and then assemble a mise en place. A French term that roughly translates into “everything in its place,” a mise en place helps cooks get organized by having all the ingredients cut and measured before the pan even hits the stove, she says.

“That’s the biggest success you can have,” she says. “Making sure you’re ready to cook before you start cooking.”

After 13 years at Ludvig’s, Colette says she’s unsure what the future holds. Both the restaurant and a chowder cart she runs downtown are seasonal, so she can spend more time with her family. She has been teaching cooking classes and would like to pursue that at some point.

“I know there’s more for me in this life,” she says. “I don’t think it’s just Ludvig’s.”

Until then, Colette says she’ll continue to create a place where people can feel connected.

“The most important thing for me is just making food memories for people, and a space for people to sit down, enjoy life and create special moments,” she says. “Food gets right to the heart. Somebody might not like you, but if you cook them really good food, they’re going to love you.”