After a year at the helm of Express Cuisine, island chef Chris Lueck is selling the business because of health problems.
Lueck has been a cook since 1974, and like most culinary school graduates, he said, he had always wanted to own his own restaurant. That dream became a reality almost exactly one year ago, but came to an abrupt end earlier this month when an orthopedic specialist informed Lueck that he needs to have both knees replaced. His days of standing to cook and work for 12 to 16 hours at a stretch are behind him, he said.
“I thought I would get Six Million Dollar Man knees,” Lueck said, “but the doctor told me I will never have the knees of a 20 year old.”
In an interview last week, Lueck said that word of his situation has begun to spread and some people have already expressed interest in buying the restaurant, but the process is in the very early stages.
This sudden change of direction has also brought several plans Lueck had for Express Cuisine to an end.
When he bought the business, he also bought the recipes that former owners Jim Riggsbee and Jocelyn Savoie used for their long tenure there. While Lueck said that food was excellent, he wanted to serve his own creations. He had recently begun serving an Asian-inspired lunch, an homage to his Japanese mother, who he says was an excellent cook, and he had hoped to install a wood-fired oven.
“Had I not gotten injured, that would have been my next step,” he said.
He planned to close for three weeks in the fall, like the former owners had done, and with the reopening he intended to introduce table service and a whole new menu featuring Asian food.
“That was my original idea,” he said. “Had I not bought Express Cuisine, my restaurant would have been Asian-inspired. ... All of this is not happening.”
Lueck is a familiar face to many on the island, given his long work history on Vashon. After working off-island at Whole Foods for several years, he became the deli manager at Thriftway, a position he apparently had not considered before it became available.
“I traveled so much, I didn’t even realize the island had a grocery store,” he joked.
Once hired, he said he built the plans for the deli, bakery, cheese island and food tasting counter there. After two years in that position, he became the store’s wine steward. He missed cooking, though, he said, and eventually became the manager of the Mileta Creek Restaurant at the Vashon Golf & Swim Club.
While there, he began looking for a restaurant he could make his own. His wife Lauri Mitchel suggested he talk to Riggsbee and Savoie, who had planned to retire fairly soon.
“We just kind of hit it off,” he said. “I ended up buying the restaurant.”
Though it was only for a year, Lueck said owning Express Cuisine allowed him to pay homage to his parents. His father’s artwork hangs on the walls, and his recent lunch offerings — and interrupted plans — were a tribute to his mother.
Looking ahead, Lueck said he is not sure what he will do next and added the realization that he could not continue in his former path was difficult.
“I was in a funk. I did not want to face reality,” he said.
His wife made several sacrifices over the years so that he could open a restaurant one day, he said, and he credits her with helping him begin to view his circumstances differently.
“A window of opportunity will open that I never expected,” he said. “You have to put a positive spin on these things.”