Serving feasts in the wilderness

Haines Junction restaurant draws international travelers

Posted: Tuesday, August 01, 2000

HAINES JUNCTION, YUKON TERRITORY -- ``Wilderness'' and ``gourmet'' are two words that are rarely found in the same sentence.

But in this town of 800 people, located strategically at the crossroads of the Alaska and Haines highways at the foot of the St. Elias Mountains, rugged scenery and fine dining do go together.

Tourists who have spent the day exploring nearby Kluane National Park can sit down to haute cuisine in the evening: Say, an appetizer called ``Chicken and Mango Surprise,'' homemade bread, a main course of buffalo sausage and broccoli pasta, a bottle of Errazuriz Cabernet and, for dessert, a special coffee with a smooth mix of liqueurs.

At The Raven, a 12-room hotel, gift shop and restaurant, European standards of customer service and quality consciousness are being applied, according to the German couple who built the business literally from the ground up.

Hans and Christine Nelles are among an influx of German and Swiss entrepreneurs who have purchased or started tourism-related businesses in the Yukon over the past 15 years.

``People ask me, `Why such a high-end restaurant in the middle of nowhere?''' said Hans Nelles, 48, formerly a regional administrator for Germany's government-run health insurance program. ``It's a real break from the usual highway-like food. ... We always wanted to live in a secluded place like this.''

Haines Junction, about 100 miles west of Whitehorse and 150 miles north of Haines, was established as the result of highway construction during World War II.

Until recently, village merchants catered to highway traffic as it came but didn't promote themselves much, according to Nelles. ``Haines Junction used to be just a pit stop, actually.''

 

He says The Raven has become a destination in its own right by stressing quality rather than quantity. ``I think we have gone the extra mile.''

The second-floor restaurant is open only for dinner. No more than 25 people are served in an evening, and the reservations are staggered. The result is a feeling of intimacy, even as diners gaze out the window at a sweeping mountain landscape.

As a result of the small scale, Hans and Christine have just four other employees and are able to exercise complete quality control.

Self-taught in the culinary arts, they both prepare the raw materials during the day. While her husband takes orders and serves in the evening, Christine does the actual cooking. She is constantly moving from the stovetop to the convection oven to the refrigerator, tilting a saucepan over a flame here, swiftly cutting up a vegetable there.

``The timing is everything -- to get everything hot on the table,'' said Christine, 44, a former accountant in Germany. ``I really should put a mileage (counter) on my feet in the evening.''

The menu gets adjusted daily, although to ensure freshness, only half a dozen entrees are available on any given evening.

Among the dishes served this summer have been Alaska halibut encrusted with crushed peppercorn in a brandy sauce; New York steak with green peppercorn and brandy sauce; seafood pasta; and pork tenderloin. Entrees are generally priced about $30 in Canadian dollars -- or about $20 in U.S. currency at current exchange rates.

The Raven, opened in April 1995, has attracted attention.

In the current edition of the 30-year-old ``Where to Eat in Canada,'' author Anne Hardy wrote: ``Tourists come here from Europe and Asia to see Kluane and find that they've discovered (or that we have) the best restaurant in the Yukon, or Alaska for that matter.''

Hardy praises the Nelleses as perfectionists, noting that they go to great lengths to obtain fresh produce and fish, make their own bread and pasta, pick mushrooms and grow herbs and edible flowers. She also credits the no-smoking hotel for maintaining ``12 of the world's most immaculate bedrooms.''

The restaurant has a regional following, particularly since the Alaska state ferry Malaspina was designated a day boat for the upper Lynn Canal two years ago, Hans Nelles said.

But international travelers show up more often. Nelles said about 60 percent of The Raven's clientele are not from North America.

Every week, Whitehorse gets two direct flights from Frankfurt, Germany, and one from Basel, Switzerland, and many of those tourists travel on to Haines Junction. On a recent Saturday evening, The Raven hosted a tour group from Belgium that constituted most of the diners.

The Raven works with travel agencies in Whitehorse and Anchorage and also directly with European adventure-tour operators. As of last January, 600 room nights -- equivalent to 50 days with no vacancies -- were already booked for this season, Nelles said. Typically, guests stay from a few days to a month, and there are few single-night bookings, he said.

In the off-season, October through April, The Raven is available for special group events, such as wedding parties, but is not open to walk-in traffic or solo bookings.

The Nelleses, unhappy with increasing pollution and congestion in Germany, first visited the Yukon in the mid-1980s. In 1987, they bought the former Mountain View Motor Inn. They ran the business for seven years and sold it in 1994.

Then they took a year off to plan their dream business -- a small, quality-minded establishment. Hans cleared the lot and designed the building, and the couple constructed it with a friend.

``We've done everything from scratch,'' he said. ``Our soul is in this building. Like your baby, like a piece of you.''



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