Small Town News

Small Town Business

Local restaurateur to write cookbook

Shelton-Mason County Journal of Shelton, Washington

- Advertisement -

Suzan Fleck, former owner of Suzan's Grill, retired November after eight years in business. She may have hung up her apron, but her enthusiasm for creating good, fresh food has not waned.

She opened in November 2001 and retired last year on November 15.

Prior to opening Suzan's, she owned several catering businesses and worked in numerous restaurants and other venues.

One was as a cook for Boyer Tug in Seattle. She says she was "a substitute cook for four gals who wanted to take holidays off." She did that from 1999 through 2001. They throw you in and you just do it," she recalls with a laugh.

For five years prior to buying the restaurant, she traveled a five-state circuit doing Indian powwows. Fleck says she would go to one, replenish supplies and then take off and go to another.

She had a concessions trailer that she used at Suzan's to cook for big functions. "I could serve anything and everything out of that," Fleck reports. There were four sinks, a freezer, holding pans for both hot and cold items, a deep fryer and a grill.

That lifestyle was "quite adventurous," Fleck admits.

She was at just such an event in Pendleton, Oregon, when her husband Larry "called and told me about the restaurant being open. He wanted me off the road."

She credits her husband with her success at Suzan's. "He worked in business all his life. He owned a store at Capital Mall for 12 years. He has great common sense. He's the one behind me," she says with pride. "I did the recipes and took care of the help. He kept all my budgets."

Fleck is also indebted to her daughter, Athena Vovos, who worked with her for eight years. "I trained her for about 20 years. I called her my 'little shadow.'"

She and her husband reside in Olympia but she would travel to Shelton every day, explaining, "I was willing to do that." Her brother had been the previous occupant of the building when the restaurant was called Patrick's on the Hill. "My attitude was Yes, let's go for it.'"

She calls Shelton part of her old stampin' ground and says when she was younger she roamed from Yelm to Olympia to here and points beyond. "Everyone would intermingle."

She says her slogan was "down-home cooking with an uptown flair." Fleck herself is partial to down-home cooking. All those years she spent on the road, she says, "I was lucky if I got a burger I didn't throw out the window. Or they would slap together two hamburgef patties and call it hamburger steak. I just don't want to pay for it."

Recipes from family, she says, "things I've had." Everything was made from scratch - corn beef, pot roast and everything else. "I cooked it. I made the broths. I made gravy and sauces off that like at home but with no fat, salts and sugars.

She says she did healthy cooking, using all fresh foods. "Even potato salad and coleslaw, which had a shelf date," she notes. That was not too much of a problem. The problem was keeping up with what we do."

Fleck adds, "I was health conscious in what I fed my customers." The only thing that was not sugar free was desserts. She also didn't use flavoring that much, like with a pot roast. As the broth boils down, the more condensed it gets. She would then skim the fat off, and use the concentrated juice "to make an excellent gravy."

She never used leftover baked potatoes to make mashed potatoes. Nothing came out of cans at Suzan's.

"Down-home, I think, comes from the way I was raised. I grew up on a farm. Breakfast was the big meal, lunches were more moderate, soups and a sandwich, and supper was usually leftovers," she recalls. "I cooked all my life."

Fleck continues, "My experience is experimenting. My husband says I have a gift for taste.

And here's an example of the "uptown flair" she spoke about. "Ralph Lund at Falls Terrace did a rack of lamb, char-broiled with juniper berry." Fleck had never tried a recipe with juniper berries. She experimented and boiled them. "It was a joke, she recalls but from that attempt she created her recipe.

She decided to do charbroiled lamb chops with a blackberry merlot glaze. One evening when that was the special she had ordered enough lamb for 26 servings at three chops per serving and sold out. "I have taught these people to like lamb. I felt I had them hooked," she says with a grin.

The secret to cooking is staying hungry, Fleck professes. "If you stay hungry, you'll improvise. Different wines and fresh herbs make any dish so delectable. I tried them, I cooked them, I adjusted them using the same types of food in a different way," she explains.

"I don't know if I want to tell secrets," she adds with a laugh. She did say that with almost any of her recipes, "You can take the meat out and have a nice vegetarian dish."

Her life changed in 2005 when her husband had bypass surgery and she had to spend more time at home. "And here we are going down hill economy-wise. I was needed at the restaurant and I was needed at the house." That put a strain on her, she admits, and the couple tried to sell the business. "We went through the hardest time. "Things started to come back and 2006 wasn't bad."

"Up until Larry got sick I did my own cooking. I was in seventh heaven, but I brought on another cook," she notes.

Now in retirement, she says she can get to cleaning the house.

She is looking forward to playing golf and river fishing, two hobbies she has not had time to pursue. "I want to get the hubby out golfing. I've had a golf bag in the closet since I bought the restaurant. I took out the golf shoes. They didn't disintegrate," she jokes, "but they were unwearable."

"I love to fish, but I haven't done it once since I took over the restaurant," she adds.

She's also looking forward to hunting with her sister. "She's an avid hunter. I'll be the camp boss. It's just fun being outdoors. I'm not going to retire and sit in that chair. I'm not going to get in that habit," she vows.

She has a cookbook in the works and plans to have it out by the end of this year. Until then, she shares an award-winning recipe.

It is from the 2003 Oyster-Fest, where she was the silver-medal winner in the soups and stews category of the coo-koff. "One of the judges said it needed more substance, like potatoes. That's not oyster stew," she proclaims, "That's clam chowder. My dad taught me this one." She describes it as "simple but elegant."

Copyright 2010 Shelton-Mason County Journal, Shelton, Washington. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: February 4, 2010

More from Shelton-Mason County Journal