Bigfork’s Saketome combines owner’s concern for healthy oceans with his dedication to high-quality Asian cuisine

Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Lido Vizzuti

Drake Doepke spent much of his teenage years and early 20s traveling to Asia to study different cultures. He’s spent the last six years sharing what he learned at his Bigfork sushi restaurant. When knowledge tastes this good, it’s a pretty easy sell.

Doepke owns Saketome Sushi in the center of Bigfork Village. He opened it in 2009 after stints at a Japanese restaurant in Bozeman and a respected sushi joint in Hawaii, where he established a broad repertoire of techniques. But his culinary roots were planted long before those jobs as a teenager, when his father, a philosophy professor at University of Colorado in Boulder, would bring him along on sabbaticals to Asia.

Doepke then began traveling to Asia by himself when he turned 18, spending months at a time there while living the job-to-job life of a young man bent on seeing the world. He was enamored with the widespread emphasis on making excellent food and maintaining ancient traditions.

“That’s when the light bulb turned on,” Doepke says.

At Saketome, his respect for tradition is as omnipresent as his willingness to explore bold new styles. The cuisine feels contemporary yet made to endure – as new as the latest turn of his imagination and as old as sushi itself. It’s accessible to sushi newbies but up to the high standards of veterans.

Doepke will happily go into painstaking detail to design a fusion roll with a panoply of exotic ingredients, like seared foie gras or mango or lemon aioli, but he finds as many worlds of flavor in a single piece of fish. He can describe the subtle taste differences that fish acquire depending on their specific coral reef of origin. He strives for the kind of insight that he admires in the best sushi chefs: a wisdom born of repetition and tradition and, of course, a discerning palate.

Shirley Moorman, left, and Janice Erickson eat at the counter

Shirley Moorman, left, and Janice Erickson eat at the counter

While searching out sushi’s essential truths, however, he has discovered a less desirable truth, one that has more to do with the frailties of the modern world than rolling techniques: humans are wreaking havoc on the oceans.

Over the years, Doepke has grown more conscientious about sourcing his fish. He is a member of Seafood Watch, a watchdog group based out of Monterrey, Calif., that monitors issues such as overfishing and unsustainable fish farming practices, which can pose dangers to both humans and oceanic ecosystems. The organization releases science-based recommendations of seafood to eat and to avoid. Saketome doesn’t serve anything on the “avoid” list.

One repercussion of abiding by the recommendations is that Doepke doesn’t carry unagi, a popular eel dish found at most sushi restaurants. Another consequence is higher prices for some fish, though Doepke works hard to keep costs manageable, and customers have proven willing to absorb slight dings to their wallet in the name of high-quality, sustainably sourced fish. Not to mention, Doepke can feel more comfortable that his fish isn’t hazardous to customers’ health.

In addition to Seafood Watch’s research, Doepke scrupulously studies the fish industry on his own. He has identified operations practicing sustainable aquaculture – an umbrella term for the various methods of farming oceanic organisms – around the world and then coordinated with his distributors to form partnerships.

“That’s really the future of the industry: good aquaculture operations,” he says. “That’s how you save the ocean. Raise fish in a sustainable way.”

Doepke wouldn’t go to all that trouble just to serve less-than-stellar fish in the end, and he says he sometimes struggles to overcome the perception that fish in Montana isn’t fresh or top shelf because it’s so far from the coasts.

“The distance doesn’t matter,” he says. “We can always source the best fish. The most important time lapse is from the water to ice.”

Doepke’s commitment to sustainability and quality is paying off. Online reviews are overwhelmingly favorable, and he has a loyal local base in addition to Bigfork’s herds of summer tourists. And it’s hard to beat a happy hour that serves all drinks half off.

Doepke enjoys catering to a base that includes snowbirds from urban areas who are accustomed to great sushi and won’t settle for less, along with customers who are trying it for the first time.

“People will come in scared, try a few things, then come back in again,” he says. “That’s been fun, to watch those people evolve. We see a lot of converts.”

Owner Drake Doepke uses a torch to sear the top of a makimono

Owner Drake Doepke uses a torch to sear the top of a makimono

Doepke has trained other chefs to roll, including manager Bailee Ingram, the restaurant’s “master of operations.” He no longer has to spend as many hours in the kitchen. With a staff that he trusts so much, led by the vigilant Ingram, Doepke feels ready to expand and is exploring options.

“It’s kind of a family dynamic here,” he says. “We’re all friends. We all take care of each other.”

And they take care of their customers, too, all the way from the ocean to the plate.

For more information, visit www.saketomesushi.com or call (406) 837-1128. Reservations are recommended, especially for summer weekends, but not required