A little while ago, we caught up with one of our favorite hometown chefs, Ethan Stowell of Ethan Stowell Restaurants, to talk food philosophy, family and late-night snacking. Named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs in America in 2008, he’s also been nominated for several James Beard Awards. You’ll find his restaurants all over Seattle — and even in Safeco Field, home of the Mariners. The next time you pay a visit to the Emerald City, check out a few of our favorites: Bar Cotto, How to Cook a Wolf and Staple & Fancy Mercantile.
What first drew you to cooking?
It actually wasn’t really the food. The people in the restaurant industry are really super interesting people. There’s a lot of actors and artists who are there trying to make a living as they work on their true love, and I just really enjoyed everyone I met in the industry from the beginning. I was just an insecure young kid, and I started cooking and I realized that all of these people in the industry didn’t care who I was or whatever — they just wanted me to have a good day at work.
How would you describe your approach to cooking and to food?
My approach, in all honesty, has gotten more simple the more I do it. When I first started cooking it was really about being high-end. Now I’m a little more relaxed about it, and I enjoy it more. Now it’s more about having people enjoy themselves and doing whatever I can to help them have a good time at the restaurant or at my house.
Where do you find inspiration for new dishes and new restaurants?
New dishes — that’s easy. It’s really about seeing what’s at the farmers market, seeing what farmers are bringing in to the restaurants, going fishing myself or foraging for mushrooms myself. It’s really seasonal. Every year you come across the same ingredients as the year before, but your mentality has changed a little bit, so you try something new with it. I’m very lucky because my hobby is my career.
As far as new restaurants, it’s a combination of a few things. One: travel. Traveling is a big deal to me. Two: ideas that I’ve always had for restaurants that I’d like to open up and finally being able to do it. And the last is just where I am in my life. If I’m feeling casual, I’ll probably open a really casual place. If I’m feeling super family-oriented, I might try something that’s geared towards kids. Right now, we’ve got a young kid at home, and he’s inspiring us to open really casual places because I want places that my little son can go to, and I think that sounds fun.
Your restaurants really focus on shared dishes and communal tables. Why is that?
One thing about my family that was really great was that my parents loved cooking. My dad was the cook in the family — that was really his hobby, his relaxation after work. The best gift I ever received in my life was the fact that my family, literally every night, ate dinner together at six o’clock. And with three kids, that dinner was usually some sort of large-format meat because there were three growing boys — a leg of lamb, roasted chicken, whatever it is — it was always a family-style dinner. For me, that’s really what cooking and dining is all about: people gathered around a table, having a good time.
What do you want your guests to feel and experience at your restaurants?
It’s really one thing: hospitality. I want people to come in and feel like they had a good meal, their server was nice to them, the bill didn’t drive them crazy. The goal of a good restaurant, to me, is that you as the customer don’t have to worry about stuff. If you’re worried about a cranky server or a rude host or the fact that it was crazy expensive, well then that’s not really hospitable to me. I want people to come in and not have to really think about things. I look at it as though we, my customers and my staff, are all going to get together for one night and have a good time.
With so much success in the industry, why not branch out to other cities? Why stay in Seattle?
You know, you do a bunch of traveling — you go to Paris, you go to Rome, you go to Vietnam — but Seattle is home. People ask me “What’s your favorite place out there?” and the answer is always Seattle. It’s true! I grew up here, I met my wife here, we had our son here. And Seattle’s been so good to me. I have a good track record of things working out for us here. And there’s great products to work with here — to eat and to cook with. It’s just a great place to live.
So what’s next?
Well, we have a few things coming down the pike. We have a fine dining place we’re getting ready to do. We also have another son on the way, so he’ll take up a fair amount of time and be pretty fun! Right now it’s just a good time for us to grow our business, have a family and try to figure out a work-life balance. We just want to have a good time doing it all.
What can we always find in your pantry at home?
Things that are really pretty simple, pretty basic. You’ll always find spaghetti, good olive oil and anchovies. You might find some Cheez-Its or maybe some Goldfish crackers because I’m a snacky kind of guy. But just like at our restaurants, we go shopping every day or every other day and we try to keep our stock pretty limited at home.
Do you have a favorite comfort-food dish you make for yourself?
It’s one that you can find on the menu at a few of our restaurants: spaghetti, anchovy, chile, garlic — but heavy on the anchovy. I put some cheese on it sometimes, too. It’s just something that’s really simple and easy to make. But if I’m in the mood for a “guilty pleasure” kind of meal, well I’m a Seattle guy, after all. I’ll probably go to Dick’s and get a Deluxe or something like that.
If you can’t make it to Seattle soon, you can make a few of Chef Stowell’s favorite dishes at home: