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Food Doesn’t Travel Far to Get to Duke’s Kitchen

Duke’s in Crystal Lake is a north suburban leader in serving sustainable, locally-grown food.

Part of a series on local food and suburban farming.

Chef Zak Dolezal of in said using locally grown food has many benefits. It’s sustainable, it supports local farmers; it’s healthier. But perhaps what’s most important is that it tastes better.

“Ultimately, we’re just trying to make good food. Our customers wouldn’t keep coming back if it wasn’t,” Dolezal said.

Dolezal worked in fine dining restaurants in Chicago prior to taking over as chef at Duke’s.

“Fine dining restaurants use a lot of local ingredients because of the higher quality. I didn’t understand why a suburban restaurant with comfort food couldn’t do it,” Dolezal said.

So when Dolezal, who grew up in Libertyville, came to work as chef at his family’s restaurant four years ago, he brought a commitment to serve locally grown, sustainable food.

“It was an opportunity to do this in the suburbs. I was already passionate about local food and I think it’s fun working with local farmers and having such a close relationship with food,” Dolezal said.

Dolezal found that it was rather easy to find sources of locally grown food.

“In the beginning, I just went to farmers markets and started asking people. Most farmers are happy to point you in the right direction, if they can’t help you themselves,” he said.

It wasn’t long before local growers started to approach him with suggestions.

About 40 to 75 percent of food at Duke’s is locally grown, depending on the time of year.

“By January or February, we’re down to just meat and potatoes. But by the end of March, you start to get asparagus and leafy greens,” Dolezal said.

Serving locally grown, sustainable food is more expensive. However, Dolezal points out that some organic products, like lettuce, end up being less expensive because it lasts longer.

Duke’s has also started growing its own food at a patron’s backyard in Woodstock. The restaurant garden focuses on crops that are easy to grow, but tend to be expensive, like tomatoes, lettuce and herbs.

As a chef, Dolezal enjoys working with a seasonal menu and locally grown products.

“I think with local ingredients you want to do less and let the ingredients do the talking. It’s minimalist cooking,” he said.

For instance, in Duke’s popular beet salad, the beets are just slightly roasted and topped with local ingredients --Wisconsin bleu cheese, candied pecans, endive, and apples.

Dolezal notes that some of his customers don’t really know that the restaurant is serving locally grown food. Other customers are very educated and ask questions about the source of the food.

“Most meals in the U.S. travel 1,500 miles, using a lot of fossil fuel. It’s nice to be able to say a lot of our stuff comes from within 20 miles or less,” he said.

Vegetables grown without chemicals and livestock raised without antibiotics is important at Duke’s, but not all the food is certified organic, due to the cost for farmers to go through the certification process.

“We visit our farmers and we talk to them so that we can see that what they are actually doing is meeting our standards,” Dolezal said. “Trust is hugely important nowadays with all the foodborne illnesses.”

Dolezal believes that as consumers become more educated they will start demanding sustainable food at restaurants.

“You are going to start seeing more grass-fed beef and other locally grown products on menus. Everybody wants to stay alive and listening to the customer is more important than ever,” he said.

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Juliann Salinas November 09, 2011 at 03:45 PM
I met Zak about 3 years ago at a "Dine around McHenry" event. He was very knowledgeable and passionate about eating locally and creating a sustainable eatery. (They were just undertaking the transformation) Honestly, at the time, I didn't get the whole "locavore" thing, but I was excited to see the development of a new restaurant that was offering something different than the generic chain offerings that permeate McHenry county. Since then, I have spiraled down the rabbit hole of awareness regarding the importance of local food systems and its relationship to the environment, and have come to see Zak and Duke's as being truly cutting edge and revolutionary. Their community involvement in providing the location for Green Drinks as well having "Meatless Mondays" and "Gluten-Free Wednesdays" (which, to me, demonstrates a sensitivity to the evolving needs/desires of the local residents) is commendable. I also saw Zak speak this spring at the MCC "Garden Fest" about local food systems and their in-house garden. They practice what they preach, which is refreshing. But I'll be honest, if the food sucked, no amount of organic beer would make up for it. But it doesn't. It rocks. I've never had a bad meal there since they re-opened under Zak. And anything they make with goat cheese is the bomb. Duke's is definitely my go-to restaurant for out-of-town visitors and dinners with my gluten-sensitive friends and family. Go! Support local food and businesses!
DIane Kinsch November 21, 2011 at 02:36 PM
Glad to see Chef Zak and his team getting the kudos they deserve!! The creativity and quality put into the menu is amazing - plus the support they give to local growers!

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