I went to college to become a doctor but along the way, got attracted to the business world and became a stock broker instead. One of my first investments was a restaurant called Ray’s Boathouse. I had been taking my clients to lunch and fell in love with restaurants. I was dazzled. So I invested as a silent partner. I was a making what I thought was a pretty straightforward one-time investment. I provide the money and my money grows more money. However, my investment was almost a disaster.
What started out as a nice gathering with family and friends on opening night turned into a not-so-enjoyable time when I noticed that our guests were not getting great service. Immediately I got up from the table, leaving my wife and friends, essentially ruining dinner, put on an apron and began working in the restaurant. That reality show worthy scene has likely played out on many a restaurant’s opening nights, but in this particular case after several years of pouring my life into the business I had an epiphany…I realized that I was born to run a restaurant, not just be an investor.
After successfully turning that one night into a learning moment the restaurant ultimately became an iconic classic in the Pacific Northwest. When I got the itch to start and run my own restaurant there was much debate and consternation by friends, a few consultants and myself about what to call the new restaurant but in the end it became Duke’s. My name, which had been penned after my dad when I was a little boy, was to be the moniker for the new brand. That was in 1976.
Even though my career was in business, I never stopped studying cures for diseases and medical science. I was always fascinated. Several years later in the late 70s, having been a fan of diet drinks, I ran across a study about aspartame which revealed that small amounts of it were carcinogenic. I immediately threw away my cans of TAB and set about to read ingredients on packages of all kinds. My medical science interest was revived that very moment and it lead to cleaning up our ingredients in all of our food. I began eliminating trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, soy lecithin, tri-polyphosphate and other chemicals, growth hormones, artificial stimulants, color enhancers, flavor enhancers and antibiotics.
Most recently I also made sure that all of our chowders are gluten free and that we have an extensive gluten free menu. After winning the Seattle Chowder Cook-off contest three years in a row (1980’s) when I was asked to step out of the contest in year four and instead become a judge because restaurants were threatening not to compete in the Alzheimer’s fundraiser, we subsequently added Chowder House to Duke’s brand. That one idea to change our brand to Duke’s Chowder House helped the company to grow into six locations. Today, nearly 40 years later, Duke’s literally has served millions of restaurant-goers our tasty Award Winning Clam Chowder and other tasty dishes.
And then there was another pivotal event in the mid 80’s when I was invited to Alaska to see how fish were processed. As I stood in the processing plant, watching the fish being unloaded from the boats and processed, it struck me that I had no idea how the fish were caught, how they were handled, were they bled and iced, how much difference it made. I vowed that the next time I went to Alaska, I’d not stay on land but instead would be on the fishing boats and see things first-hand.
My education thereafter lead me to develop what few, if any other restaurant have done, that is, to only buy “ice chilled, better than fresh” seafood. I discovered that “fresh” seafood isn’t really fresh. It can be as old as 27 days. I learned all the pitfalls of trying to get fresh seafood to our kitchens. In short, we rarely have difficulties that are prevalent in other restaurants, because of my epiphany to “be on the boats, that’s where the action is.”
With each trip that I took to Alaska over the last 30 years, I learned more and more. I saw salmon unloaded from the fishing vessel but sitting on the dock with no ice covering it. It lead to a frozen product that failed miserably 8 months later. I saw fresh seafood sitting on the tarmac of an airport in Alaska in 80 degree sunshine, no protection and ruined before it arrived at its destination. I temped fish coming off boats and realized that not every fisherman ices their fish properly. Fish that is not iced properly loses ½ day of freshness for every degree above 32 degrees. I have made sure to institute procedures that ensure our seafood is the best on the planet. It’s a process we call, “Seafood Better Than Fresh.™”
And, along the way, I discovered that our salmon and steelhead are endangered species. There isn’t even enough salmon to conduct old fashioned fishing derbies. It bothered me to know that we are losing a critical food source. There used to be millions of fish in our Pacific Northwest waters. Now, there’s only a fraction of that amount. We are running out of salmon. It’s the reason I have been purchasing seafood from Alaska. We do not have a sustainable salmon and steelhead resource in our waters. I can no longer sit by idly without doing something to restore this vital resource. I will do everything I can to make sure there is plenty of wild salmon and steelhead for our grandchildren and our grandchildren’s grandchildren. That’s why I have teamed up with Long Live the Kings (LLTK), a non-profit with a mission to restore wild salmon and steelhead and other seafood along the west coast. In fact, a portion of the sale of our new cookbook, As Wild As It Gets . . . Duke’s Secret Sustainable Seafood Recipes will go to benefit LLTK.
What seems obvious to me now however hasn’t always been widely accepted. And even now to serve the best ingredients may be cost prohibitive for most restaurant owners. Duke’s is now leading the world on serving sustainable seafood, all natural ingredients, hormone and chemical free foods and when available all organic fruits and vegetables.
My mission is to serve only sustainable seafood that is ice chilled better than fresh along with food that is natural, chemical free and full of flavor.