KANSAS CITY, KAN. When Janna Traver carries beautifully plated special dishes out from her kitchen and into the dining room so a photographer can shoot pictures, the response is immediate.
And there's an audible murmur as guests in the restaurant nudge each other, over their burgers and deli sandwiches, and appear to say, "Did you see that?"
It's easy to be impressed by the three exotic-meat specialties Traver sets down on a rustic, wooden table in the Yukon Base Camp Grill, the restaurant in Cabela's, the hunting, fishing and outdoor-gear superstore that opened in August near the Kansas Speedway in Kansas City, Kan.
On one plate is buffalo stroganoff buffalo tips stewed in a rich brown sauce, tossed with penne pasta and finished with sour cream.
On another, smoked duck quesadillas with sliced duck breast, melted mozzarella cheese, saut mushrooms and peppers in a flour tortilla served with sweet jalapeipping sauce.
And on the third plate, a mixed grill of bacon-wrapped quail breast and center-cut, peppered elk loin chops in aged balsamic vinegar and herbs, dusted with fresh cracked black pepper and finished with a brandied demi-glaze.
Hardly the kind of fare you'd expect to encounter in an outdoor sporting-goods emporium at the foot of an octane-soaked race track.
Which is probably fitting, since Traver executive chef and restaurant manager of the Yukon Base Camp Grill never dreamed she'd work in such a setting.
"This is not at all what I imagined my career progression would be. It's a total surprise. When I was training at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, I guess I thought I'd be working in New York somewhere," says Traver, 35.
"But the great thing about this menu is that if we were in New York, the elk chops would cost $65, not $24. Here I don't have the costs of running a free-standing restaurant."
Any regrets she's not serving up more costly cuisine in the big city?
"I cannot imagine doing anything other than this," she says.
Numbers are 'staggering'
Traver is involved in an experiment these days.
While each of the eight Cabela's retail stores all located in the Midwest has a food court-style restaurant, only the one in Kansas is in the midst of developing an upscale, gourmet alternative within the Yukon Base Camp Grill concept.
From 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, six tables are set aside in the restaurant for white-tablecloth fine dining with a special menu, developed by Traver, that focuses on exotic-meat dishes like buffalo, venison, duck, quail and elk.
The from-scratch menu also features a variety of imaginative dishes prepared with chicken, shrimp, trout, pork, salmon and Black Angus beef.
There's limited seating first come, first served and reservations only can be made in person at Cabela's for dining that day.
The restaurant-within-a-restaurant can accommodate as many as 24 people at one time, and there are typically three seatings in an evening.
"It's been going very well, with excellent response to the food. This is a very different concept, in that this facility wasn't originally set up for white-tablecloth dining. It's set up more for a food court with a deli and grill area more casual dining," Traver says.
"Here we're doing things that are a little more upscale. And the customer feedback on the food has been wonderful."
Yukon Base Camp Grill gets its exotic meats from a purveyor called House of Smoke located outside Denver. Deliveries are made to the restaurant every day or every other day. The meat comes from farm-raised animals and is U.S.D.A. inspected.
Though Traver had some experience working with game meats, she's also done some improvising to create her new specialty menu.
"I learned a lot of this on the fly, by instinct and lucky guesses," she says.
Preparation is always a challenge when using meat from animals such as elk, deer and buffalo. There tends to be virtually no fat.
"The main problem people have is overcooking. An elk chop served medium-well will come across to the customer as tough and dry. It should be served medium-rare to medium to make it juicy and tender," Traver said.
"If you prefer your (game) meat well done, you should do things more along the line of stews or a stroganoff. Those are cooked over a longer period of time, which allows the meat to tenderize."
Traver's work on the special menu with its exotic dishes doesn't eclipse her overall duties at Cabela's. She's still responsible for running the whole restaurant operation.
The mainstream concept of the Yukon Base Camp Grill is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. A buffet with a breakfast bar is open 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
|The Yukon Base Camp Grill is located in Cabela's, 10300 Cabela Drive, in Kansas City, Kan.Janna Traver, Lawrence, is executive chef and restaurant manager.Cabela's, which bills itself as the "world's foremost outfitter," specializes in hunting, fishing and outdoor gear.The store's telephone number is (913) 328-0322.To learn more about Cabela's, visit the company's Web site at www.cabelas.com.|
On the regular menu, diners will find a wide range of choices, everything from cheeseburgers and chili dogs to more exotic fare such as sandwiches made with smoked elk or ostrich, roasted caribou and buffalo.
From the grill, you could order up venison or bison bratwurst. Plus there are soups, salads, side dishes, pizzas and desserts.
The restaurant seats 180 people, while there's room for 150 more guests in the banquet rooms.
It all combines to keep Traver and her kitchen staff of 60 plenty busy.
"The numbers of people are staggering sometimes. It's very high paced," she says.
Creating a buzz
Traver first fell in love with cooking, and later honed her skills, on the Lawrence restaurant scene.
Traver has worked in the kitchens of several current and former restaurants in town, including: the now-defunct Arthur Porter's; Molly McGee's, 2429 Iowa; the American Bistro (now Shalor's) in the Eldridge Hotel; Fifi's Restaurant, 925 Iowa, where she was sous chef and later executive chef; and, most recently, Marisco's Grill & Bar, 4821 W. Sixth St., where she was chef de cuisine.
Cabela's hired her in April. She spent several months training in the company's restaurants before helping to launch the Yukon Base Camp Grill in the company's Kansas store.
Traver, who lives in Lawrence, attended Kansas University and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1991. She graduated summa cum laude from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in Arizona in 1994 and has lived here since then.
Her entire family is made up of KU graduates. Her parents, Hans and Mary Traver, as well as her sisters, Lisa and Kay Traver, all earned their degrees at the school.
Janna Traver's mother and two sisters live in Lawrence. Her father who was a Fulbright Scholar from Germany while he attended KU lives in Peru, where he owns a plastics company.
Janna Traver lived in Lima, Peru, on and off for 13 years. Her first language was Spanish, and she didn't visit the United States for the first time until she was 8.
For Traver, the attraction to restaurants is the action: the flames, the heat, the pressure.
"This is what drew me to it the cooking part, working on the line, the finesse that's required. Line cooking, doing a la carte dishes, is an art form," she says.
And "art" is a good way to describe the attention-getting meals she creates for her special menu, the dishes that have diners craning their necks for a better look.
"The fine dining here creates a buzz," Traver says. "Everybody wants to know what you're doing."