By Brian Robin
One of the elemental qualities of Duane Owen’s DNA is he’s never off. People hate to eat with him because when you dine with Duane, you dine with Duane’s never-ceasing eye riding shotgun.
You dine with the eye that can critique the lack of glaze on Korean Spare Ribs one moment and the eye that in the next moment, sees the only satisfactory way Pechanga Resort Casino’s Thursday Night Lobster Buffet can operate to his exacting standards. You dine with the eye that saw flying in 2,500 live lobsters every Tuesday night from Maine, trucking them up from San Diego Wednesday morning and preparing them on a 12-person methodical assembly line that Henry Ford would approve of Thursday afternoon as Pechanga’s proper salvo in the Claw Wars among Southern California casinos.
“We have to cut 2,500 lobsters in four hours, so I make it fun for the team, shooting rubber bands at them,” said Owen, the Executive Chef of Pechanga for the last seven years. “Before they know it, in three and a half hours, we’re done.
Because Owen’s culinary eyes – eyes honed over a 35- year career that includes stops at the famous Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod and 13 years at the mammoth Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut – never blink, Pechanga’s 13 restaurants are not only a hallmark of the Temecula resort casino’s appeal, but present visitors to the Southern California Wine Country with a diversity of culinary options unmatched in any one locale.
Whether it’s prime steak at the Great Oak Steakhouse (one of three AAA Four-Diamond restaurants in Riverside County outside of the Coachella Valley), top-shelf sushi at Umi, Italian delicacies at Paisano’s, the spectrum of Asian fare at Bamboo or Blazing Noodles or, yes, even lobster at a buffet that serves more than 800,000 people a year, Owen’s eye misses nothing.
Owen oversees a staff of more than 600. He personally hires every chef, oversees menu revisions, works with purchasing to ensure Pechanga is serving only the best ingredients and, yes, jumps on the line somewhere every day – usually on the banquet side.
“Many people tell you not to manage with emotion. I’ve learned 180 degrees the opposite. I manage with emotion every single day. I develop relationships, what I call ‘turning up the radio.’ Every day, no matter what, I turn it up.”
“If we had 17 Duanes here, we would fail. We would fail miserably,” he said. “I need my chefs bringing it to me, pushing me to say, ‘Is this the right idea?’ You have to be flexible and realize you’re not the one with all the answers.”
Perhaps it’s that flexibility that makes Owen the all-reaching octopus he is. Or perhaps, it’s not the arm. It’s the eye.