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Cooking up success

By Keegan Prosser on April 16, 2013 – No Comment


Chef and restaurant owner John Howie seems to have an endless amount of energy. He seems to be smiling all the time. He has reason to smile. He has a healthy, happy family life, five restaurants and another one on the way, and now his first-ever James Beard Foundation Award nomination.

The James Beard Foundation nurtures and promotes the culinary arts. Beard is no longer alive, but his historic brownstone in New York’s Greenwich Village is still a “performance space” for visiting chefs. Howie cooked a dinner at the Beard house last November, nine years after he last cooked at the famed home.

The foundation has several categories for awards, with the nominees and eventual winners chosen by food writers, other chefs and foundation members.

Howie is one of 20 nominees in the “Outstanding Restaurateur” category, which was won last year by Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas.

“I seriously doubt I’ll win because Tom won last year,” Howie said. His rationale is that they wouldn’t go with two Northwest chefs in a row, but, like the old adage, it is indeed an honor to be nominated.

With 37 years in the restaurant business, Howie doesn’t think he’s been nominated before because his restaurants are large. He said the awards tend toward smaller venues.

“They like the starving artist thing,” he said.

Howie’s story is definitely one of hard work and persistence. He started his career 37 years ago as a busboy at The Refectory in Bellevue. He was 15-years-old and already living on his own. His father was killed in a car accident in 1964, near the family home in Illinois, when Howie wasn’t quite 4-years-old. Howie said he gets his drive from his parents. His father was a pilot for United Airlines, and when he wasn’t flying he was selling real estate or working the small family farm. His mom went to work in the offices of United Airlines, and re-married in 1967. With his mom and new step-dad, Howie and his little sister moved to Bellevue.

Unfortunately, the marriage ended in 1970. Howie’s mother had her own rough past. She was sent to a children’s home when she was just 13, where she was abused. After the death of Howie’s father and subsequent divorce, she developed into an alcoholic, and Howie was left to care and cook for his younger sister and step-sister.

His mother had a breakdown when he was 15 from trying to quit drinking on her own. He and his sister were sent to foster homes, while his step-sister went with her dad. When his mother returned, sober, “she wanted to be the boss of me,” so he left home.

The Refectory was closed by the Health Department not long after he started there, so Howie moved on to Emmett’s in Bellevue where he started as a pantry chef, preparing salads and desserts. Eventually he was working the line, and on Sunday and Mondays he was the only cook there.

“But I played too hard and got fired,” he said.

Looking for a new gig, he was hired as a dishwasher at the Black Angus. No one believed that a 16-year-old kid had accomplished what he had already in the kitchen. Two weeks later, he was cooking again.

He left the Black Angus and worked at several other restaurants, the most interesting, he said, was called Sunday’s, on lower Queen Anne, where Metropolitan Market is now. It used to be a church, and the sanctuary was the dining room.

His big break came when he was hired as the head chef at Palisade on Elliott Bay Marina. The building was new, modeled after a sister restaurant in Hawaii. Howie worked his magic in the kitchen there for 10 years.

The time had come though, and he was planning to open his first restaurant, Seastar. It opened 11 years ago last month. He was going to call it Starfish, but that was already taken, so his son, then 5, suggested Seastar and it stuck.

Howie now has five restaurants — he opened Sport in Seattle, (across from the Space Needle) in 2005, Seastar in Seattle in 2009, John Howie Steak in Bellevue, and the Adriatic Grill in Tacoma, with partners Bill and Monique Trudnowski. His next venture will be a farm-to-table brewhouse in Bothell, which tentatively will be The Beardslee Ale House.

He likes to keep straight-forward items on his menus, but he also has dishes that challenge foodies. He said New York is tops for foodies, but he thinks Seattle is as good as San Francisco or Chicago.

He’s also maintained a close family of employees, many who followed him from Palisade.

“Twenty-five kids have been born since we started Seastar,” he said of his employee’s children.

But there is another passion in Howie’s life – helping others. No story on Howie could be told without mentioning his philanthropic activities.

“I’m a Christian – I believe Jesus gave his life for me and it’s my responsibility to give back to others,” he said. “We do something philanthropic every week.”

For example, he hosts dinners in people’s homes, which they bid on at various charitable auctions. He said the highest bid for a dinner was $13,000. For nine years he’s participated in the Taste of the NFL, where he goes to the Super Bowl, prepares food, and the money is donated to Food Lifeline in Seattle. He’s raised $122,000 for Food Lifeline.

Zan McColloch-Lussier, director of marketing for Food Lifeline said Howie is a real hero for folks in Western Washington.

“Being nominated is a really big deal,” McColloch-Lussier said. “He raised more money than any other chef in the NFL and it was really a big deal. $122,000 feeds a lot of hungry folks. He never backs away from the topic of hunger in our city. He’s always here for families in need in Western Washington.”

Last year he donated three $50 gift cards for silent auctions to 835 organizations. And every Thanksgiving he serves a three-course Thanksgiving meal to folks from Bellevue Life Spring, Hope Link, abused women from various shelters, the YWCA Redmond and Olive Crest, an organization that supports foster families.

For a guy who learned from the school of hard knocks, John Howie has accomplished much. He also has three published cook books of his recipes.

“I love to eat, and luckily for me, people like to eat what I eat,” Howie said.