The Art of Eating Well

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

For a quarter century, Francia Russell and Kent Stowell, artistic directors of the Pacific Northwest Ballet, stood at the summit of Seattle’s cultural elite. Russell had made the company’s ballet school one of the finest in the country; Stowell among his many achievements, choreographed Seattle’s holiday favorite, Nutcracker. They had three sons. The youngest, Ethan, went to work at 16 making shakes at Daly’s on Eastlake. At The Ruins supper club, he started by taking out the trash and cleaning the garage. His first restaurant, Union, which opened in 2003 when he was 28, failed when its downtown customer base fell victim to the Great Recession.

Early success, early failure, followed by a relatively swift and steady recovery. In Union’s wake, Stowell created new spaces, 10 of them, all deep within Seattle’s rich tapestry of residential neighborhoods: Capitol Hill, Belltown, Queen Anne, Green Lake, Ballard, Madrona. He had no over-arching marketing strategy, like “tourism.” Not that he turns away tourists, but they’re not his focus. There’s no shame in courting hotel concierges, or in courting the media, or in siting all your restaurants within walking distance of one another, as Tom Douglas has done with his bustling, big-city brasseries. Stowell’s restaurants are designed to be cozy neighborhood bistros. They offer a menu that’s neither fussy nor expensive, service that’s courteous, ambiance that’s warm and welcoming. 

Stowell recognizes he’ll always be compared with Douglas, but he’s really in a different world. 

Restaurants come in three or four body types. Corporate, where everything from the number of pine nuts atop the salad to the knot on the waiter’s bow tie is in a book and “menu concepts” are determined almost entirely by cost. At best, well-manicured; at worst, industrial. Then there’s a slew of modern, chef-driven establishments, where the comings and goings of celebrity cooks are faithfully chronicled by a press corps as slavishly attentive as Hollywood’s fan mags. Finally, the grab bag of family-run neighborhood joints (some on the fairway, some in the rough), often serving ethnic cuisine, where Mama’s in the kitchen and Dad’s at the door. Plus, of course, fast food (mostly in the sand trap).

Oversimplification, sure. Unfair, without a doubt. But let’s say you make a car. Who’s your market? The guy who’s wealthy enough to have a chauffeur? The building contractor who needs a pickup? The working mom who just wants to get to her office? Now let’s say you have a restaurant. Who are your clients? Visitors to Seattle with an interest in sophisticated gourmet food? People who share your ethnic background (German, Italian, Mexican)? Or people who live in the neighborhood? 

Stowell admits he used to focus on the top 2 percent of Seattle diners. That’s a very small slice of the folks who eat in restaurants, and a hugely competitive sector of the market. Almost everything you read about restaurants in Seattle (blogs, magazines, newspapers) is aimed at that top 2 percent. And Stowell wasn’t doing badly. Far from it. But when he was offered the chance to consult for Centerplate, the concessionaire managing food service at 250 venues nationwide, including Safeco Field, he didn’t pooh-pooh it as a chore beneath his abilities; he welcomed it.

By Opening Day of 2010, Stowell had come up with an expanded menu for baseball fans. Tacos filled with chicken, beef, pork and tongue. A new chicken torta with a “Milanese” dressing. The following year, even more innovation, with a new space dubbed Sound Seafood. In any event, food for a really big neighborhood.

Stowell is known as a voracious consumer of cookbooks. He owns a couple thousand, reads constantly, not for recipes but for cultural context. “If you’re going to do a French dish, know where it comes from in France,” he advises. “If you’re doing an Italian dish, know its origins in Italy.” 

Like all chefs past their first restaurant hurdles, Stowell was ready to write a cookbook of his own. He wanted to call it Anchovies & Olives, but the publisher he’d lined up, Ten Speed Press, balked. Too fishy, they said. Too weird. Fine, said Stowell, who used the name for his next restaurant instead (honored as one of America’s 10 best new places of 2010 by Bon Appétit). His cookbook ended up with the title Ethan Stowell’s New Italian Kitchen. Stowell’s wife, Angela, who serves as CFO of their company, ESR, says, “All it takes to open a restaurant is money. Almost anybody can do it. A cookbook, on the other hand, is a two-year investment.”

Published in 2010, it’s not meant as a course outline, and not just a collection of recipes. “This isn’t nonna’s Italian,” Stowell wants you to know, but “a more time-tested philosophy of how we eat: the joy and abundance inherent in thoughtful food done right.”

Stowell “cooked” for President Obama when Air Force One touched down briefly in Seattle last summer. He and his chefs provided hors d’oeuvres for a lakefront reception in Madrona. Sixteen items, from crabcakes to foie gras, for 35 guests. Frogmen in the water. Easier to do private parties in the event space he carved out in the basement of Ballard’s Kolstrand Building.

Stowell has the wherewithal, technically, to recreate the experience of dining in Rome (Rione XIII), to make his own pasta (Lagana Foods), to engage his fans with special events and “Sunday Suppers.” At Safeco Field, he broke out of the self-imposed box that limits the appeal of celebrity chefs to the followers of celebrity chefs. He’s not on the Guy Fieri low road (thank goodness), but he’s making a connection, at the ballpark, with a heck of a lot more diners than could ever squeeze into Bar Cotto or How to Cook a Wolf.

“Ethan is a terrific chef and a lifelong Mariners fan,” says Mariners EVP Bob Aylward. “He can put a ballpark twist on the locally sourced concepts that have made his restaurants so successful. He’s a major reason why the food at Safeco Field has been recognized as some of the best in the game.”
There are indeed moments of greatness from Stowell’s kitchens, such as a breathtaking ricotta gnocchi with beef tongue sugo at Tavolàta. The gnocchi are cloud-like, the tongue flavorful and meltingly tender. The dish has an evocative power, suggesting a childhood of steaming kitchens, grandmothers and noisy family dinners. Mortadella and prosciutto di Parma at Bar Cotto, washed down with a glass of slightly fizzy lambrusco. Puntarelle (winter chicory) at Rione XIII. Noo-Yawk-style pizza pies, 20 inches across, baked on the hearth of a Baker’s Pride double-stack “SuperDeck” oven at Ballard Pizza Company. 

It’s getting harder to find parking along Ballard Avenue’s Restaurant Row, where Stowell already has Staple & Fancy Mercantile and Chippy’s Fish and Drink in the Kolstrand Building (sharing the space with Renée Erickson’s The Walrus and the Carpenter oyster bar). He also teamed with Kolstrand’s owner, Chad Dale, to form a new venture, Grubb Brothers Productions, that intends to bring better quality to classic American comfort food: sandwiches, fried chicken, burgers. Though Stowell’s favorite cut of meat is the bone-in rib eye, it’s not an item for a restaurant menu. (“You don’t want to show your Henry VIII side to other diners,” he says.) Skillet-roasted rabbit, on the other hand, makes sense for the four-course, fixed-price menu at Staple & Fancy. 
   
When he closed union in the wake of the collapse of Washington Mutual, Stowell was acutely aware of check averages, how much diners were spending per person in his restaurants. Now he pays more attention to cover counts: how many people come in. “There’s no pressure to spend more,” he says. Bar Cotto and Chippy are doing just fine with $20 average checks.

How does it all get paid for, these careful buildouts? Different ways, Stowell says. Investors, partners, loans, self-funding. There’s no single angel writing blank checks. More often than not, the landlord who wants a hip, trendy restaurant in his building makes Stowell an offer he can’t refuse.

The employee count these days at Stowell’s ESR (for Ethan Stowell Restaurants), including 10 restaurants, an event space, a wine storage facility and the pasta business, is more than 200, the annual gross between $10 million and $15 million. Not nearly the size of “rival” restaurateur Tom Douglas’s outfit, and besides, they’re not rivals. Stowell has far fewer total seats, and his market is locals, not tourists. You could put all of Stowell’s seats inside Douglas’s Dahlia Lounge.

“It’s a business and needs a business plan,” both Stowells acknowledge. “An art, a craft and a small business.”

Peter Levy and his business partner, Jeremy Hardy, built up a stable of eight neighborhood restaurants under the Chow Foods umbrella. They were never celebrities themselves, but they understand how the business of a neighborhood restaurant works: You go to work every day, you take your turn at bat, you keep your eye on the ball. Says Levy of Stowell, “He and his wife strike me as savvy operators that understand how to build a brand.”

That brand, of course, is Ethan Stowell. And that brand draws praise from no less an industry luminary than Mark Canlis, owner of Canlis Restaurant. “Ethan is a natural businessman,” Canlis says. “It’s instinctual for him, and I don’t think he could escape it if he wanted to. He’s going to invent, going to lead, going to inspire. He’s got the guts to follow all his good ideas, and he’s a lot of fun to watch.” 

MISTER STOWELL'S NEIGHBORHOODS
The 10 restaurants operated by Ethan Stowell Restaurants

Anchovies & Olives, Capitol Hill (opened in 2009)
Ballard Pizza Company, Ballard (2012)
Bar Cotto Salumeria & Bar, Capitol Hill (2013)
Chippy's Fish and Drink, Ballard (2014)
How to Cook a Wolf, Queen Anne (2007)
MKT., Green Lake (2013)
Red Cow, Madrona (2013)
Rione XIII, Capitol Hill (2012)
Staple & Fancy Mercantile, Ballard (2010)
Tavolàta, Belltown (2007)

New Contributor | Ronald Holden is the author of six books about food, wine, travel and culture. His most recent book, published by Amazon, is Home Grown Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food & Drink. He also has worked at KING-TV and Seattle Weekly.

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