Close your eyes and imagine your favorite neighborhood restaurant. Can you picture its well-worn chairs, familiar faces, and the mouth-watering aroma of your favorite meal? It’s a heady memory, one that may be different for all of us, but it is still an experience we all share. It’s part of how food draws us together, how it creates memories as soon as we are warmly welcomed into an establishment that will become our regular spot.
This was the goal that Ethan Stowell, Seattle, Washington’s preeminent chef and restauranteur, had in mind when he created his restaurant empire.
“I originally wanted to open up a restaurant in every neighborhood I’ve ever lived in, because I’ve lived all over Seattle. And we did that,” he says. “Our goal with opening these restaurants was to put them in community-driven neighborhoods, so they could eventually become a part of the fabric of that area. We wanted them to become places that people know and seek out. So, it’s really geared toward getting involved with the community. If we open a restaurant in a neighborhood, we find the schools and get involved with their auctions—offering gift cards, for example—so that people within the community know who we are.”
But every empire has its beginnings, and Ethan’s story is no different.
“Produce is becoming so much more of a mainstream dining event.”
-Chef Ethan Stowell
“My passion for food started when I was very young. Both of my parents had been professional ballet dancers and were founding Artistic Directors of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, but my dad’s hobby was cooking,” Ethan shares. “A lot of the stuff we did around the house involved food. On Sundays, we’d take trips down to the fish markets and the produce stands. This was before farmers markets were popular, so you really had to drive out of the way to get fresh, farm-to-table produce.”
Ethan traces his start in the restaurant industry for me, remembering the days when he was a janitor at a catering company. The more I learn about breaking into the restaurant biz, the more I understand the importance of chance.
“I was trying to become a cook, so my parents called a family friend and said, ‘Hey, my son is interested in cooking; would you mind helping him out with a job?’” he recalls.
His first employer, Joe MacDonald, owned a catering company called The Ruins. While Ethan worked with him, Joe instilled in him a passion for being transparent about the things you care about.
Along the way, his other mentors, such as Chef Phil Mihalski, taught him about cooking the old-fashioned way. As much as Ethan learned from those around him, a huge portion of his knowledge comes from reading cookbooks and himself.
“Learning how to cook this way was definitely hard, but it was also good. You make mistakes and they’re painful, but you learn from them faster than anything else,” he explains.
Deeply devoted to his hometown, Ethan is a fervent advocate committed to seeing that Seattle is recognized nationally as a culinary destination. His highly acclaimed restaurants include Tavolàta, How to Cook a Wolf, Staple & Fancy Mercantile, Ballard Pizza Company, Rione Xlll, Mkt., Red Cow, Frēlard Pizza Company, Bramling Cross, Marine Hardware, Tavolàta Capitol Hill, Cortina, and Super Bueno, as well as Goldfinch Tavern in the Four Seasons Hotel Seattle. He’s due to open Wolf in the new Nordstrom flagship store in New York City this fall.
In total, he operates 20 restaurants. But rather than let this success go to his head, Ethan is in it for a very straightforward reason: to create good food effortlessly.
“It’s pretty natural,” he tells me, describing his cooking technique. “I keep things pretty simple. I buy the best ingredients I can, and try not to screw them up.”
He laughs, and although it seems to me that he’s downplaying his skill, I can sense the deep pride he holds for what he does.
“There have been times in my career that I’ve been a really creative chef, where I tried to push the boundaries of what I’m doing in my restaurants by using different cooking methods and mediums. But I suppose, for the most part, I like to keep things based on tradition and history, with my own twist,” he shares. “I want to make sure the chefs that work for me are fundamentally sound before they start branching out and creating new things. If you’re fundamentally strong, your food’s going to come out great no matter what.”
As our conversation takes a turn from the past to the present, Ethan begins to share with me the role he sees fresh produce playing in the foodservice world. Last December, he partnered with Stemilt Growers to deepen his farm-to-table connection. He paired the grower’s signature apple variety, Piñata®, with dishes he created for his Cortina restaurant. However, he went a step further to prove his commitment to understanding the world of produce. Ethan went to Wenatchee, Washington, to experience what it’s like to harvest and pack apples in real time.
It’s this commitment to strengthening his knowledge of produce that truly makes Ethan a chef to look out for.
“There are so many people turning to plant-based diets, and in doing so, they’re turning away from a restaurant culture that courted excess and went to extremes.”
“Produce is becoming so much more of a mainstream dining event. People are eating out more often than they ever have, and due to this, they’re looking for things to be healthy and they’re looking for things to be fresh,” he explains. “I love creating vegetable dishes; I think that I’ve always built my kitchens around the vegetable stations.”
A fan of fresh, light flavor, Ethan consistently looks toward his hometown’s seafood for inspiration, but he always returns to what he knows: the fresh and green siren call of vegetables.
“There are so many people turning to plant-based diets, and in doing so, they’re turning away from a restaurant culture that courted excess and went to extremes,” he tells me. “People are learning more and more that what they put into their bodies is going to help them perform better. So, we’re definitely seeing requests for lighter dishes and more fruit and vegetable-based dishes.”
And with such a lengthy list of accomplishments under his belt, it’s obvious that Ethan has nowhere to go but up.
In 2010, Ethan began consulting for the Seattle Mariners, where he worked with the team to bring local products into the stadium for fans to enjoy. He also has an ongoing chef partnership with Delta Air Lines that began in 2017 with the opening of The Delta Sky Club at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. In January of 2018, Ethan joined Holland America Line’s esteemed Culinary Council, and began a culinary partnership with Flatstick Pub. In October of 2018, he opened Ethan Stowell Pizza and Pasta in The Flight of Dreams complex at Chubu Centrair International Airport in Nagoya, Japan.
To see so many successes in one person is humbling and reminds me of how hard Ethan has worked to make a name for himself.
He was named one of the Best New Chefs in America by Food & Wine in 2008 and was chosen as a Best New Chef All Star in 2013. He made the Puget Sound Business Journal’s 2010 “40 Under 40,” a list honoring young business leaders who excel in their industries and show dynamic leadership. In 2016, Ethan was named the Richard Melman Innovator of the Year. Presented by Restaurant Hospitality Magazine, the national award honors leading restaurant operators.
On top of all of this, Ethan sits on the Board of Directors of the Woodland Park Zoo and was Co-Chair of the United Way of King County 2018 Annual Campaign. He is also a founding member of +togetherSEATTLE, an organization dedicated to raising awareness and funds in support of human rights.
He also released his cookbook, Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Kitchen in 2010.
So, how does Ethan find the time to take a beat and relax? His two boys, aged five and almost seven, like to tinker with Dad in the kitchen—the oldest’s favorite dish is steak tartar—and he’s more than happy to simply go to the swim park and play a game of baseball with them.
But really, I think Ethan feels relaxed anywhere he goes, especially in the restaurants he’s created. After all, they’re meant to be a home away from home.