Chef Bill Ranniger Talks Seafood and Sustainability

The executive chef of Duke's Chowder House will be leading FareStart's Guest Chef Night on Nov 19
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Sponsored by FareStart

Chef "Wild" Bill Ranniger is no stranger to seafood. He grew up catching, cooking, and eating "wild" seafood from a very young age, 
spending many summers at his family's cabin fishing, clamming, swimming, and gathering oysters to avoid a lack of electricity and an 
outhouse infested with raccoons. 

Duke's Chowder House executive chef "Wild" Bill Ranniger is no stranger to seafood. He has been entrenched in the wild since a young age, when he spent many summers at his family's cabin fishing, clamming, swimming and gathering oysters to avoid its lack of electricity and an outhouse overrun with raccoons. This intimate time working around water led him to a deep understanding of aquatic ecosystems and the importance of sustainability. 

This knowledge has come in handy over the course of Ranniger's more than 20-year career cooking at Duke's, which is consistently rated one of the most sustainable seafood restaurants in the country. It's an exciting and adventurous job, Ranniger says, one that enables him to take trips to Alaska, where he has "climbed sunken boats left by the Goldrushers, clammed with bears, [and] taken floatplanes over glaciers to watch salmon being caught."

Ranniger is currently spreading his knowledge of sustainable seafood to the students of FareStart, a culinary job training and placement program that empowers homeless and disadvantaged people. The program concludes with Guest Chef Night, where the featured chef works with students to prepare a three-course meal at the organization's downtown restaurant. Ranniger will be presenting his meal on November 19, from 5:30-8 p.m. Reservations are recommended and can be booked here

We were lucky enough to speak with the chef to learn about his inspiration, commitment to sustainability and involvement with FareStart.

Who or what was your inspiration to start cooking?
My mom and my grandmothers. When they passed, I was handed down all their handwritten recipes, and I treasure them. I was also inspired through camping and hiking with my brother. We foraged from the land and loved to fish, dig clams and oysters, and gather fruits. He couldn’t or didn’t want to cook, so I had to for self-preservation... and I really like to eat.

What is the greatest part of your job?
I have been working at Duke's for more than 20 years, so it goes without saying that I love my job. The people are awesome. We have a very positive culture that finds and keeps amazing team members that I’m very grateful to hang out with.

What is the most challenging part of your job?
I tell Duke that one of the coolest--and most challenging--things about the restaurant is that we have been in business for so long. Some of our guests have been regulars at Duke's for more than 25 years, which is great! But, understandably, they don’t want us to take their favorite dishes off of the menu. We have a lot of great food at Duke's, but we want to stay “fresh” and not get “tired." Something's got to give, and making those decisions is difficult and not always popular.

How do you ensure that your food is ethically sourced and sustainable?
Duke and I have been going to Alaska for years to buy our salmon, halibut, scallops, true cod and rockfish. We have found some great fishermen and women who are passionate about quality, sustainability and taking care of our Earth. Our “Dukeworthy” seafood has the tightest specs and guidelines in the industry, and we ensure our requirements are met through partnering with the best fishermen who share our ideals.

What is your favorite dish served at Duke's?
It changes all the time. Lately, I've been eating the “Pretty Pesto Salmon” a lot. I think that is why I decided to serve it for our upcoming FareStart Guest Chef Night dinner. Great quality, healthy salmon with a fresh organic basil pesto pair nicely with each other.

What is your favorite dish in general?
I love sourcing, catching and cooking salmon. It's an amazing fish. Not only is it very tasty, but it's healthy and completely sustainable.

What do you believe has been your greatest accomplishment thus far?
I have worked passionately and hard to source the best seafood and products to use in our kitchens. We don’t have any trans fats or high fructose corn syrup, none of our animals have ever been fed hormones or antibiotics, we only buy grass-fed beef, and we support local farmers and bakers that use the best ingredients available. Duke's recently got a “100% Sustainable” grade from Smart Catch, a program designed to increase the demand and availability of sustainable seafood. We are also the highest rated restaurant on “Fish to Fork." I sleep well at night knowing that we buy the best products we can. It is my goal to ensure that our grandchildren will be able to eat the same great sustainable food that we enjoy.

Why are you attracted to the FareStart program?
As a chef, I see it as a very fulfilling obligation to teach and to feed. I have met and worked with a number of great people at FareStart, and I feel lucky just to be a part of it.

What is the biggest life lesson you've learned from being a chef?
We can change and help the world with the things we buy, do and teach others about.