By Ed Staskus
“What were we thinking?” Kate Doucette asked her mother, who was peeling potatoes in the kitchen of their eatery as they geared up for the second week of their new restaurant’s first season the summer before last.
“I know, we need fish-n-chips on the menu,” said Joanne Doucette.
On the Dock is at the far end of Harbourview Drive in North Rustico, around the bend of the harbor up from the lighthouse, catty-corner to Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing, on the north central coast of Prince Edward Island. The dining room is literally on the dock. More than two-thirds of the tables and chairs are outside, spread out over a big deck, on the edge of a square wharf on the ocean.
“I’ll go over to Doiron’s and get some,” said Kate.
She walked down the street and got five pounds of fish.
Doiron Fisheries, a fish market on the Inner Harbour, chock full of shellfish, lobsters, and fresh Atlantic seafood, is about a half-mile away, by way of a boardwalk, at the other end of the street.
“It wasn’t that much,” said Kate. “But mom wondered, what are we going to do with all this fish? Maybe we should freeze some of it, she thought, just to be safe. By the time she put it in the freezer, though, she had to take it out, since we were selling so much of it.”
When they sold out the fish-n-chips, Kate Doucette took another walk back down the street to Doiron’s, this time for more than just five pounds.
“It’s a simple menu, chowder, fish cakes, but it works,” she said. “We had lobster rolls from the beginning, because dad catches all of our lobster. After working here, me and mom go home and shell lobsters a couple of hours every night.”
The fish cakes are chips off the old block from her father’s handcrafted cakes. “On Boxer Day, Christmastime, parties, the whole family would come over for dad’s fish cakes. He served them with homemade mustard pickles.”
Joanne Doucette has made mustard pickles for a long time. “It’s a recipe that’s known around here,” said Kate. Every week is National Pickle Month when it has to be. “We make batches of them for the restaurant.”
“It’s hearty home-style cooking with the freshest seafood,” said Megan Miller, sitting outside in the sun on the seaside, pushing back from her table and empty plate of fish and pickles.
Kate’s father, Robert Doucette, is Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing. He ties his 45-foot fiberglas boat up at the end of the dock outside the restaurant. He harvests lobster in season and takes tourists out to catch cod and mackerel in July and August. His brother Barry and he bait hooks for tuna in September.
“His boat used to be called the ‘Jillian Marie’, who is my older sister,” said Kate. “But, when I got old enough to realize my name wasn’t on the boat, I got a little ticked off. When he got his next boat he called it ‘My Two Girls’.”
Bob Doucette has been working out of the North Rustico harbor for more than 40 years. “He grew up in a little white house right here,” said Kate. “He hasn’t gone far. Their house used to be up Lantern Hill, but it was moved down here, on the back of a big truck.”
Joanne and Bob Doucette met when they were 14-years-old. “They’re both from here, North Rustico, born and raised.”
Kate and her sister grew up in a house in a thicket of trees a mile-or-so up the road, behind her Uncle Ronnie’s Route 6 Fish-n-Chips “We were so lucky to grow up where we were in the woods all the time,” she said.
There’s something about woods that you can’t find in books, at school, or on the infobahn. Moss grass shrubs insects birds trees will teach you what you can never learn from flatscreens. Trees wise you up to being grounded from the trunk down and limber on top from the branches out.
North Rustico is a community of about 600 residents. The bay is sheltered by Robinsons Island and houses a fleet of forty-some lobster boats. Fishing is the town’s main focus, although, since it has direct access to Prince Edward Island National Park, it has long been popular with vacationers.
All summer long kayakers launch their boats from Outside Expeditions at the mouth of the harbor, paddling up and down the north coast. It’s a way to get focused on the wide-open water. When you’re tucked into a kayak and paddling, there’s literally nothing else you can do.
“Dad used to bring me down here when I was a kid,” said Kate. “I was a huge little tomboy. He bought me a kit with a saw and hammer for my seventh birthday. He made me a miniature lobster trap to work on while he was repairing his traps.”
By the late 1990s the wharf was rotting. “Dad still had a slip for his boat, but you could hardly walk anywhere, it was just run down.” The wharf was rebuilt and a new red-roofed building, the front half housing the Fisheries Museum and the back half housing the Skipper’s Café, was built with provincial and town funding, built on the spot where Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing shanty had stood.
“They moved all the shanties to the side when they built this,” said Kate.
“We grew up down on the harbor. My sister Jill and I worked in the canteen from the time I was 12-years-old, in the shanty, where reservations were made. We sold chips and chocolate bars and soda, except Jill and I ate all the chips and chocolate until dad finally ended up only selling ice cream.”
Kate Doucette’s grandmother opened the first restaurant in North Rustico in the 1940s. It was the Cozy Corner, at the convergence of Route 6, Church Hill Road, the gas station, the post office, and the road down the harbor. Her grandparents later opened the Isles, a sizable seafood restaurant, up the road.
“My Uncle Ronnie was a big part of it and mom served there for years. The whole family worked there. They had a bakery in the basement and I’d run over every afternoon and get fresh rolls.”
One day the restaurant burned to the ground.
“It was a pretty big upset,” said Kate. “We were lucky there wasn’t any wind and none of it got into our woods.”
Towards the snowy front end of 2016 Kate Doucette was living in Charlottetown, the capital and largest city on Prince Edward Island, taking business classes part-time at UPEI and working full-time, while her boyfriend Sam roughnecked oil rigs more than three thousand miles away in Grande Prairie, Alberta. One evening her mother paid her a visit. Joanne Doucette had a proposal for her daughter.
Kate was surprised by what her mother stumped for that night.
“I wasn’t thinking of doing a restaurant, for sure,” she said. “I never in my wildest dreams thought that was going to be our conversation.”
The Skipper’s Café on the ocean side of the Fisheries Museum in North Rustico was closing. The Port Authority was leasing out the space. She was being offered first crack at it.
Kate Doucette called her boyfriend in Alberta.
“Go for it,” said Sam MacLeod. “You’ve got to take a risk sometime.” Even though it was going out on a limb, it wasn’t necessarily risky, since most risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.
“It’s in our blood,” said Kate. “I’ve been serving since I was 16-years-old. I’ve had a hell of a lot of other jobs, but I’ve always had a serving position on the side.”
Her family and she began making plans.
“The guy who owned Skipper’s Café, he was closing since he wasn’t feeling wellish,” said Kate. “Then he told us, ‘Oh, I might run it for another year,’ but by the first of May he closed and took absolutely everything out of the place.”
Many of the restaurants on the north shore of Prince Edward Island are seasonal, opening roughly at the first sign of summer and closing more or less at the start of fall. From a business point-of-view, there are two seasons, June July August and winter.
“We started from fresh, but it was a crazy month. We had to get all our licensing, buy all our equipment, and design our menu. Our tables were made by a local carpenter. We rebuilt the kitchen, which is very small, and the first summer we worked with table fryers. It was insane. I don’t know how we did it.“
The difference in fryers is that the oil capacity of tabletop models might be seven or eight pounds. The capacity of commercial deep fryers, which can have two tanks, is often 50 to 85 pounds.
“The first thing we did when we closed in October was get a commercial fryer, a grill, and a seven-foot range hood,” said Kate. “We still peel all of our potatoes with a little hand cutter. There’s a machine that can do it, if we could find the space to put it. Right now, Sam does it. He calls it his corner office.”
The reason Sam MacLeod gives a leg up at the potato peeler back in the corner is that Kate Doucette called him one day in the middle of their second summer, when he was working in Alberta. He is on rigs twenty days in the oil fields northwest of Calgary, and then off ten days, which he often spends having flown back to PEI.
“I was crying,” said Kate. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, either I’m going to kill my mother with all the work she’s doing or I’m going to have to close down.” After working all day, and after closing everything down at night, her mother was spending two more hours peeling potatoes for the next day, every day.
“It was just too much,” said Kate.
“I’m going to take August off and come back and help you guys,” said Sam.
Sam MacLeod and Kate Doucette met in a Subway on the eastern end of the island at the moment Kate knocked over her young niece. She and her sister, Jill, were distributing Bob’s Deep Sea Fishing fliers at tourist cottages. They stopped for lunch. She and Mila, Jill’s daughter, were walking across the dining room to the soda fountain.
“I had my hand on top of her head and I accidentally pushed her over,” explained Kate. “She fell down.”
Sam MacLeod, who had just pulled into the parking lot and walked in the door, stopped where Mila was lying on the floor in front of him.
“Is she all right?” he asked.
“I hadn’t even noticed it happened.” Kate looked down at her niece. “Oh, she’s fine, she just kind of fell over.” Sam gave Mila a helping hand up.
“He’s nice, he’s cute,” said Jill as they watched Sam drive away in his white knight white pick-up truck.
Six months later, on a Friday night, while in a bar and grill in Charlottetown with friends, she recognized a young man wearing a red hat at the bar. She walked up to him
“Do you remember me?” she asked.
“You’re the girl who pushed that kid down on the floor,” he said.
“She survived,” said Kate, grasping at straws.
They exchanged phone numbers. Twenty days later, a few days after Christmas, Kate and Jill were loafing in their apartment in Charlottetown. “Jill and I were going to hang out, have a chill night.” But then, out of the blue, she got a text from Sam.
“Do you want to go out to dinner?”
“I told him to give me a second. He took me to Cuba the next month. We’ve never spent a night apart since then, except when he’s out west.”
The couple built a house in Stratford, outside Charlottetown, but then rented it out on Airbnb. They planned on building something in North Rustico, but in the meantime realized they needed somewhere to live. They considered buying a camper and parking it in her mom and dad’s backyard.
“We found a reasonably-priced one on-line. It wasn’t the nicest, though, kind of shitty, and I was thinking, at the same time, do I want to shower in a camper all summer?”
She showed a picture of the camper to her parents. They took a close look at it, retreating to the other end of the room to compare notes. “I could see them kind of talking. They knew we were trying to save money.”
“Just stay with us,” said her mom. “We’ll fix you up a room. We’ll make it work.”
What she meant was, since they were already all working together, if they were all living together, it would make seeing one another all the time sticky. It might be too close for comfort. That’s why, since God has given us our relatives, many thank God they can pick their friends.
It would take some sufferance, fifty-fifty payoffs. They made it work.
“We’re only there to sleep, anyways,” said Kate. “We don’t cook there, we don’t hang out there, we don’t do anything, really. We’re always working. You give up your whole life half the year when you work at the restaurant.“
On the other hand, if you’re doing what you want need and enjoy doing, you’re never actually clocking in to the daily grind rat race any day of your life.
“The one place I’d rather be in the world is down at the harbor,” said Kate. “It’s hard, you see everyone working so hard, but to be with the people you love the most, my mom and my dad, my sister, my boyfriend, I can’t think of anywhere’s else I’d want to be.”
Joanne Doucette runs the show in the kitchen. “You’re not going to have anyone in the kitchen who cares more about you than your mom.” Kate is the hostess server business manager, Jill busses serves odd jobs, while Sam and Bob run errands deliver seafood peel potatoes and take out the trash.
Kate’s niece Mila is in training.
One evening at closing time, looking for something to do, her Crocs at the ready, Mila asked if she could clear the outside tables.
“You can take the salt and pepper shakers and candles in, but leave the flowers,” Kate instructed her.
When Mila was done, two men were still at the last occupied table on the far side of the deck, their plates pushed to the side, kicking back at the edge of the ocean. “She went right up and took their empty plates off the table. They ended up giving her five dollars.”
“Kiki, Kiki!” Mila whooped, running up to the front counter, waving her five-dollar bill.
“She calls me Kiki. It just happened. She just one day decided,” said Kate. Since no one is allowed to give themselves a nickname, it might as well be your six-year-old niece. Catching a break, Kiki is better than, say, having to answer to Pickles.
“I don’t work here, but I help out all the time,” said Mila on a warm breezy sparkly afternoon, a broom a head taller than her in her hands, sweeping up around the chairs and under the tables on the deck, in the interval between lunch and dinner.
When you’re helping out it’s all hands on deck.
There’s no keeping Mila down.
Photograph by Vanessa Staskus.