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In the Kitchen: Duke’s looks to Alaska for fish

Seattle chain ensures quality through strong ties with fishermen and processors

Waitstaff at Duke's are trained to understand the
    origina and preparation of each fish. - Photo courtesy of Duke's Chowder House
By Joan M. Lang
June 01, 2006

At Duke's Chowder House, it's all about the source - especially the one called Alaska. That sourcing strategy has turned the six-unit, Seattle-area chain - which started in business as a chowder specialist - into an all-around seafood powerhouse.

The menu and Web site for Duke's are peppered with references to wild Alaska salmon and halibut. As Alaska's salmon rivers open, each in its season, fresh-sheet specials celebrate the unique flavor and texture of each species of salmon.

And every spring, owner Duke Moscrip and Executive Chef Bill Ranniger take a trip to Alaska to meet the boat captains and processors who sell their catch to Duke's for use the rest of the year.

"As the rivers open, we'll focus our menuing and buying on [Alaska salmon]," says Ranniger, a lifelong Seattle resident who first learned to love fishing with his dad on the San Juan Islands.

"Like wine, each salmon has its own identity."

In the wintertime, when neither halibut nor salmon is in season, the restaurants' fresh sheets tout fresh crab, scallops and other species. It's all part of an evolving effort to connect the producer to the plate with every category on Duke's Pacific Northwest menu, and to offer the very best quality at all times.

"Last year, we bought 32,000 pounds of Stikine River king salmon off one boat and had it processed for us for when we can't buy fresh," says Ranniger. "This year we'll probably buy 50,000 pounds."

They may also do the same with halibut.

The salmon is filleted and frozen in situ to Ranniger's specs, then trucked down to Clackamas, Ore., to the Pacific Seafood Group, which distributes the fish to Duke's chefs on an as-needed basis throughout the balance of the year.

Having bought their salmon from a distance in the past, actually seeing the Stikine River was a revelation for Moscrip and Ranniger.

"Talk about the beautiful, pristine waters of Alaska," says Ranniger. "We took a jet boat up the river about 30 miles to a glacier that was spectacular, just amazing. The eagles were as thick as crows. That's how we decided to focus on product from Alaska - cod, halibut, salmon, crab."

The strategy gets them what they believe is the best possible product year-round. "And we get great prices too, because we guarantee buying the entire catch."

Moscrip and Ranniger have always been concerned about sustainability issues (farm-raised salmon is verboten, for instance), and now that Duke's has reached critical mass, they have the buying power to set their own specs. When the first Duke's opened more than a dozen years ago, the menu was heavy on the clam chowder and fish and chips.

These items are still stalwart customer favorites (in fact, the restaurant has won so many Best Clam Chowder awards that it's been barred from further competition in the Seattle culinary circle for a while), but the fresh sheets have become more important through the years.

Ranniger spends several weeks testing and developing salmon and halibut items for the various season openings, such as Cedar Planked King Salmon or Broiled Stikine River King Salmon with goat cheese and fresh blueberry beurre blanc, then travels to the restaurants to demonstrate all the specials.

With one chef and two sous chefs in each restaurant, there's plenty of talent on hand to train the crew to produce a roster of sophisticated seafood presentations, and each kitchen staff is responsible for passing that information along to servers as well.

When the catch is on, each unit chef selects five to eight fresh specials a week from Ranniger's large "inventory" of seafood specialties and also has creative freedom to experiment with his own specials.

Staff training becomes particularly crucial with the weekly fresh sheet.

"You have to make sure that the waitstaff understand the importance of what they're selling - where the fish comes from, why it's special, how it's prepared," explains Ranniger.

Loyal customers reap the benefits. Moscrip also started a newsletter, which now goes out to some 60,000 members of the Duke's fan club and includes recipes, photos of Alaska and Ranniger's notes from the rivers. (Ranniger also owns a small seasonal restaurant and campground on the Columbia River that is part of a summertime concert venue.)

Salmon and halibut from Alaska now constitute almost a third of Duke's total sales, translating to about 100,000 pounds of salmon and 90,000 pounds of halibut a year.

"We still sell a lot of fish and chips and a lot of chowder and a lot of fresh salads," says Ranniger, "but salmon and halibut are getting really important to us."

The more he learns about seafood from Alaska, adds Ranniger, the more he has come to realize how well the resource is managed. "They know how to open and close the season in order to control the production," he notes

In fact, sustainability has become a mantra of sorts around the Duke's headquarters, between Ranniger's and Moscrip's efforts.

"If you're going to be serving food that's wild, you have to embrace the idea of stewardship," says Ranniger. "In the case of fish, that means following it from the water to the plate and knowing what happened to it at every step of the way."

He is trying follow the path of more menu items from their origin, not just to ensure consistent quality and price but also sustainability. For instance, Duke's is purchasing more local fruits and vegetables, such as Pacific Northwest berries, and is using staff meetings to educate both cooks and servers on their benefits.

In the process, he's moving the entire menu into a more contemporary, ingredient-driven ideal that is very much in keeping with what Duke's management believes customers today are looking for.

As far as working more closely with the Alaska fishermen and local processors, Ranniger sees that relationship only increasing.

"It's a sustainable process, from a sustainable source. And that makes us feel food about what we're doing - for the environment and for our customers."

 

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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