Like any new restaurant, ZenFish, a Durham poké restaurant that opened a few months ago on Ninth Street, is on a mission to serve the best food possible to its customers. What’s different is owner Janet Lee’s philosophy.
The restaurant’s slogan is “Do Good, Eat Well” and the goal is to not only provide good food that’s good for you, but also to “do good,” whether that’s hosting a food drive at the restaurant, supporting local farmers, or composting as much waste as possible.
Lee’s love for poké, sushi, and Hawaiian culture, drove her to take a break from the corporate world and start her passion project, ZenFish.
“Growing up, I had this idea that I needed a traditional career—some sort of 9-5 job, and I followed that path for many years. My favorite part of all my jobs was going to meetings where I could meet and chat with clients. When I couldn’t fall asleep, I would look at food pictures and do research on restaurants that I could take my clients to, so I always knew my passion was in people and food,” Lee shares.
After a long day at work, she looked forward to decompressing at yoga and receiving positive messages from the instructors. “Eventually, I realized how much I really wanted to create a space where I could incorporate all the things that made me happy: people, food, and the community.”
After attending a yoga class, which focused on the intention to “do what you love,” Lee decided to take that giant leap of faith, leave her corporate job, and pursue the journey of ZenFish.
Poké is a classic Hawaiian dish made up of raw fish that’s cut into cubes. It’s fresh, healthy, fast, and flexible. While traditional poké was made from fish, seaweed, Hawaiian nuts, and salt, modern poké restaurants like ZenFish put a new spin on it, allowing people to customize their bowls however they like.
“We knew we didn’t want anyone to feel excluded from our menu options, so the chef and I made an effort to create a menu that could cater to anyone,” explains Lee. “We have raw, cooked and vegetarian options that are all equally delicious, and we have different bases to choose from, like zucchini noodles, salads and carbs like organic quinoa and Japanese white rice. Since most of our sauces are gluten-free, we have that option too!”
Customers can add any toppings (like seasonal micro greens from one of the local farms) and toss it in any sauce. ZenFish has been able to find something to match all lifestyles and dietary restrictions from gluten-free to the Whole30. “That’s a service we’re very proud to offer to our customers,” Lee notes.
Even though people typically think of poké with fish, it can also be made vegan and vegetarian. A customer on social media recently advised, “not to be fooled by the name…as ZenFish has great vegan options!” With options like organic quinoa, zucchini noodles, local salad mix, and avocado, for any and every vegetarian bowl, plus a miso ginger sauce that pairs nicely with veggie options.
Before opening, Lee expected most customers would be students given the close proximity to Duke, however it actually turns out only to be about 35 percent of her clientele. The other 65 percent of her customers are people who work at the Duke/VA hospital, students and teachers from nearby Durham schools, retired people, and families…customers of all ages. They even have kids portions and customers as young as four years old!
Small Space; Big Impact
As part of her overall goal—to be as eco-friendly as possible while delivering feel-good food to people AND giving back to the community—Lee strives to make a positive impact beyond the confines of the restaurant’s modest 600 square feet.
On Earth Day, for example, the chef created a special Earth Bowl and the restaurant donated 100% of the proceeds from that bowl to our National Parks. She also holds occasional food drives on site. “We would like to get more involved with the community and pay it forward as much as we can,” says Lee, who also tries very hard to reduce waste at the restaurant by using mostly all compostable products, such as our bowls, lids, water cups, forks, sauce cups and chopsticks. She works with a local compost company so that very little goes into the landfill.
Even small decisions, like carrying boxed water instead of bottled water is more sustainable. (They also offer complimentary fruit-infused water daily.)
The fish is sourced from local purveyors and Lee continues to look for the most sustainable seafood with high standards for feed and environmental guidelines. They currently carry tuna from the Carolina coast and Scottish salmon from aquaculture systems off the coast of Scotland.
As much as possible, their produce is sourced from local farmers, such as microgreens, like pea shoots and sunflower shoots, and edible flowers from Mama Springs Farm, and sweet potato, dinosaur and curly kale, zucchinis, and radishes from Funny Girl Farms.
ZenFish serves only local brews such as Bull City Ciderworks, Mystery Brewing, Ponysaurus, Durty Bull, Mati Energy Drinks, and Homebucha Kombucha from Durham, as well as other local NC beverages and brews.
Lee also likes to work with local businesses, such as Bull City Designs for furniture needs and The Zen Succulent for their beautiful living wall. “Supporting local, to us, is key to sustainability,” she adds. The interconnectedness of the Durham community helps make that possible.
“I always knew Durham was booming with new and delicious restaurants popping up everywhere, however, I didn’t understand how close knit and supportive the community would be until we opened ZenFish. Honestly, everyone has been so kind and encouraging. From local food bloggers like Bites of Bull City to nutritionists like Taste Nutrition Consulting, and social media influencers, fellow local restauranteurs (shout out to Michael Lee, owner of M Sushi, and our neighbor Jamba Juice) to nearby bars, businesses (like H & Arrow Fitness), schools and churches…everyone has been so wonderful. The people of Durham and the Triangle community are so willing to support and lift each other up. The Durham community is definitely one of a kind and I always find something new and uplifting in every aspect of our ever-growing community.”
It’s a supportive and positive energy that resonates perfectly with the ZenFish motto and the whole reason Lee chased after her dreams in the first place. A message of eating well and doing good that comes full circle in the food and in the message that ZenFish embodies.