Fishing with Duke
Extreme sourcing with the man behind Duke's Chowder House
By Roddy Scheer May 14, 2013
As the wheels touch down in Cordova, a little fishing town on Prince William Sound in southcentral Alaska, Duke Moscrip already has his coat on and his finger on the latch of his seat belt. Outside, dozens of black 10-by-10-foot crates filled with freshly caught, flash-frozen Copper River salmon—what many consider to be the tastiest fish in the world—sit on the side of the tarmac waiting to be loaded onto the plane for the return trip to Seattle. While the unassuming airport consists of only one runway and a single corrugated metal terminal building, the place is buzzing with activity. It’s the tail end of the salmon season, and Cordova’s fishermen are working hard to get their catches out.
Moscrip, the 60-something proprietor of Duke’s Chowder House, a chain of six Puget Sound–area restaurants he launched back in 1977, is glad to be in Cordova again. He makes this trip north every year to personally inspect the catch, and to woo fishermen and processors to sell him a share of the annual coho run. He needs 50,000 pounds’ worth of so-called “grade A” wild coho fillets to feed his patrons for a year.
While most Seattleites have passed through (or at least by) one of Moscrip’s restaurants, few realize that “Duke” is even a real person, let alone one of the most enduring figures on Seattle’s restaurant scene. Indeed, he was one of the founders of Ray’s Boathouse back in 1972, before striking out on his own with the first Duke’s on Queen Anne five years later. A passionate foodie with a keen interest in sustainable sourcing, Moscrip has been quietly producing green restaurant fare in Seattle for a lot longer than it’s been trendy to do so.
He tries to visit each of his primary producers every year—timing his trips so he can pick out the actual seafood, beef and even booze that his customers will consume. This year, he plans to visit clammers on Chesapeake Bay, crabbers on the Washington coast, cattle rangers in central Oregon, Kentucky’s bourbon belt and, to make his first-ever trip to China to check out whether his wild squid harvesters are operating as sustainably as advertised.
This time around, he’s looking forward to getting out on the water with Bill Webber, a third-generation Cordova fisherman who catches tens of thousands of pounds of Copper River salmon every summer and ships it directly to private customers and restaurants across North America. Disappointed with the Copper River cohos he got last year from onshore processors, Moscrip is looking to find more reliable sources that can guarantee him a choicer selection of the catch.As Moscrip exits the airport, Webber—muscular and stout, wearing a “Gulkana Seafoods Direct” trucker cap, gray plaid shirt and faded jeans—is there to greet him with big smile and a bear hug. “Welcome to Cordova,” he says.
“I can’t wait to get out onto the water,” Moscrip says, a boyish grin coming over his weathered face. A full head of wispy gray locks and piercing powder blue eyes give the restaurateur an aristocratic look that’s offset by his Scottish features. A crook in the nose and still-trim physique hint at an athletic streak—indeed he was a star guard on the Bothell High basketball team way back when, and still plays some 60 or more rounds of golf a year.
They load into Webber’s pickup for the 13-mile drive into Cordova proper along the Copper River Highway—one of just a few roads in a town so remote that the only way in and out is by boat, plane or chopper. They pass through “downtown” Cordova, which looks like any well-worn fishing town in the Lower 48 save for the glacier-clad peaks ringing the outer harbor. They park the truck and make their way out onto the docks past dozens of small fishing boats to Webber’s slip, where the gleaming aluminum-clad, 35-foot FV Paradigm Shift is gased up and ready to go.
“I built it myself last winter,” Webber declares matter-of-factly as he signals the way on board. “It’s completely state of the art.”
Wide-eyed, Moscrip climbs aboard and goes to the bow, where he runs his hand along the round edge of the 5-foot-tall drum winch—a big cylinder that can roll out hundreds of feet of fishing net to “drift” in the water column and snag passing salmon. Moscrip is visibly impressed and takes to inspecting every last element on the new boat. “This is one sweet ride,” he tells Webber, patting him on the back.
Webber is more than happy to show off his shiny new rig. He spends winters holed up in his Cordova workshop, where he builds boats, including 50 of the fishing boats plying the Copper River Delta today. He also dreams up and builds a wide range of mechanized fishing gear designed to help him “head and gut” the salmon he catches right on board the boat, so that the fillets are ready to ship out immediately to eager customers, some of whom he e-mails right from the boat with updates on the catch.
“Let’s do some fishin’!” Webber declares. With that he fires up the engine and begins steering the boat out of the busy harbor. Within an hour of cruising, he has Paradigm Shift perched at the edge of the famous delta and sets the drum winch in motion to unspool the net. Around and around it goes, then Webber turns it off, and boat and net drift together quietly.
For the next half-hour, not much happens, but all the while Moscrip has his gaze trained on the net, looking for a sign of success. Then, all of a sudden, it jolts. “There we go!” exclaims Moscrip, knowing the movement signals the arrival of some salmon. “I’ve been out fishing enough to know how it works, but not enough to lose that excited feeling when the catch comes in,” he tells Webber.
Another 10 minutes of bobbing tranquility pass, the boat seemingly tethered to the ocean itself via its long extending net. Then, suddenly, the net jumps again, but this time it’s not more fish. Moscrip points to a spot where a harbor seal is taking liberties with one of the salmon.
“What can you do?” he asks rhetorically. “The seals need to eat, too.”
Indeed, Moscrip has always had a soft spot for seafood lovers. He became one himself as a little boy when his grandfather would put chocolate eclairs in the middle of the table for anyone who could finish off a bowl of homemade clam chowder. “The kind of chowder my grandfather made was very brothy and clammy, with lots of butter floating on the top, and not very creamy,” Moscrip says. “It was pretty severe, but I loved those eclairs,” he reports. “So I actually developed a taste for the chowder. It was a great trick.”
While Moscrip always loved food, opening up a restaurant (let alone a chowder house) didn’t factor into his thinking until he hit his late 20s. He was working as a stockbroker for Dean Witter in Seattle, a job that required taking lots of clients out to lunch.
“I started becoming a student of restaurants without really knowing I was,” he reports. “I would look at the interiors, the food part. It was all so fascinating to me.”
When Russ Wohlers—an acquaintance whom Moscrip knew as “the guy who married my junior high girlfriend”—approached him about becoming a silent partner and handling the finances for a new restaurant venture in Ballard, he jumped at the chance. The year was 1972, and the restaurant was Ray’s Boathouse. Moscrip and his lawyer, Earl Lasher, joined forces with Wohlers, who left his post as the manager of the Hindquarter Restaurant in Bellevue to turn his culinary dreams into a reality. The resulting restaurant would help set the template for what was to become “Northwest cuisine.”
But not before it almost went belly up during its first six months. “It was a disaster,” Moscrip says. “We had this incredible property, but we were losing our shirts.”
“I was working as a stockbroker from 6 to 2, and then I would get in my car and go over to Ray’s, do all the financial stuff, get the money in the bank, host, wait tables and bartend,” says Moscrip, who by that time was married with a young daughter. Like any good workaholic, Moscrip reacted by pouring even more of himself into work. When things started going south with the chef and kitchen staff, he even took over the cooking. “It was just killing me. I was sleeping four hours a night, and the whole thing was taking a toll on my marriage.”
The persistence paid off. In the spring of 1974, Ray’s Boathouse became one of the hottest restaurants in Seattle. But Moscrip, always the “student of restaurants,” soon got antsy and started coming up with ideas for how he would do things differently. Two years in, he sold his share in Ray’s and put the proceeds into opening the first Duke’s on Queen Anne in 1977.
Some of his new ideas at the time—a wide-ranging menu of lovingly prepared comfort foods, cigar boxes instead of a cash register, varietal wines by the glass, premium liquor in well drinks—may not seem so novel now, but were a breath of fresh air in Seattle’s oh-so-stale restaurant scene of the day. The proximity to KeyArena, home to the popular SuperSonics and many a rock concert, also helped fill the place, and Moscrip was riding high.
Of course, back then, the restaurant business was a much different beast than today’s. Customers didn’t care where their salmon came from, let alone whether it was farm-raised or wild.
“In the early days, we didn’t know what we were buying,” Moscrip reports. “It could have been sockeye, coho, king, or it might have been chum. We just weren’t aware of the different species. We even bought farmed salmon because we didn’t know any better. Nobody did.”
But getting lesser-quality fish off the back of the distributor’s truck in Seattle was the trigger that made him first contemplate going directly to the producers. “It goes back a long way when I first started to realize that the salmon that was being offered by our distributors wasn’t always exactly what we should be serving,” Moscrip says. “Some of it wasn’t iced properly and would taste funny and spoil prematurely.
“It was this gradual education that I kept getting, based on what we were experiencing with the taste of the fish,” he adds. “You can’t really get the information from the distributors and the processors, as they’re not there to educate you. You’re so distant from the fishermen you don’t really have any idea what’s really going on. And there’s no way to find out unless you go. So I’m up here every year.”
Back on the boat, Webber says it’s time to see how many salmon that seal left behind. He trips the switch, and the winch starts rolling. Before long, the net brings in a silver flash, and Moscrip muscles Webber aside to reach in and disentangle the fish, a beaut of a coho stretching 25 inches from head to tail. He holds it up and gives it a kiss on the nose, long a delta tradition to welcome the first catch of the day. Five more cohos follow. Webber takes over and severs the gills to put the fish out of their misery and slides them into the refrigerated seawater hold.
While six fish in an afternoon is no great score, Moscrip couldn’t be happier about this trip north. For him, spending time with producers who care about the quality of their product and sustainability of their resources—whether they are in Washington state, Alaska or China—is the real thrill. The next day, these fish will join Moscrip on a flight back home—Alaska Airlines walls off the first-class sections of the 737s it runs between Cordova and Seattle to transport the big black fish crates—some destined for a dinner plate at Duke’s Chowder House.