Interview with Chef Ethan Stowell of Union, Tavolàta, and How to Cook a Wolf - Seattle

March, 2009

Heather Sperling: How did you start cooking? What was your first food job?
Ethan Stowell: My first food job was working at a catering company called The Ruins in Seattle. The owner was a family friend; he gave me a job sweeping the garage and cleaning the walk-ins. I didn’t go to culinary school. I stayed there a few years and moved up, then I went down to Seeger’s in Atlanta and worked there a year. I returned to Seattle and worked at Nell’s as a sous chef. I was there for a few years, then went to The Painted Table in Seattle. I had one more sous chef job and then opened Union in 2003.

HS: How did you know you were ready to open your own restaurant?
ES:I knew at some point I wanted to start doing two things: developing my style of cooking, and creating a customer base of people so that when I opened up my own restaurant I would have a loyal following and some potential investors. So I started doing some catering on the side. I worked seven days a week doing as many catering jobs as I could. One of my clients were the people that owned the building that Union is in. They said: “Hey, you’re unproven, but we’re willing to take a risk.” I knew I wanted to open my own place, but they definitely sped it up by two to three years.

HS: What is your food philosophy?
ES: Keep it simple and make it better than people can make it at home.

HS: What is your leadership philosophy? What defines you as a restaurateur?
ES: For the last few years, I’ve been aggressive about opening new restaurants so we can keep our cooks in Seattle. Right now we have 75 employees.

HS: How do you keep your employees?
ES: I try to make it so that they have a good time at work every day. I give extra benefits. I try to pay as much as I can. I genuinely try, and I think people understand that. I'm 34 and I have three restaurants. All the money I have is in these restaurants!

HS: Tell me about your concepts.
ES: We have three places right now, and will have the fourth, a seafood joint on Capitol Hill—by [first quarter of 2009]. When I opened Union, I was a young kid and wanted to cook whatever I wanted to cook. Tavolàta was filling a need for an upscale-casual Italian restaurant—there wasn’t one like it in town. How to Cook a Wolf is a 30-seat restaurant on Queen Anne’s that does 100 covers a night. How to Cook a Wolf was originally going to be a wine bar, but changed to a small plates restaurant. The new seafood place is also Italian; so is Union. That is the style of cooking I enjoy the most. I just set up a delivery system to make fresh pasta daily to go to all our restaurants!

HS: Do you have partners?
ES: Yes—my wife Angela Stowell and my business partner, Partic Gabre-Kidan. I own 70% of How to Cook a Wolf and 50% of Tavolàta.

HS: How has Seattle dining changed since you opened Union?
ES: There are a lot more restaurants—that’s the main thing. There was the big booming business of the late 90s and dot.com era, and then the bust and a lag, and then a lot of young restaurant owners and restaurateurs started popping up. Seattle is a good environment for that. People will go support small businesses. Cooking is turning into a young man’s game and that gives other young people confidence to go do things.

HS: What’s next on your plate, after Anchovies & Olives opens?
ES: If I did anything, it would be small. A prosciutto bar that would be food-focused, but more of a combo of bar and food. I don’t want to dilute our food program too much, and I want to make it pretty easy to self-operate. I want to be able to service a niche of drinkers that want to have a snack—and I’ve always wanted to have a bar.

HS: What advice would you give aspiring restaurateurs?
ES:Make it small. I think what people consider to be small is getting smaller and smaller. When I opened Union, I thought it was really small. All the hot restaurants around the country were 150 seats, and it’s only 70. Now it’s not small. Costs of goods are going up, and smaller spaces make it so that you can control labor, food costs, because your space keeps you in check. Don’t be nervous of a space because it’s really small. Make the small space work. If that means there are only two to three cooks in the kitchen, that’s better. If there are six cooks, you have to make twice as much money off the food to pay the labor. Everything we open from here on out will be on the small side.

HS: Who do you consider your mentor?
ES: My biggest mentor is a friend of the family, John Pomfret. He used to manage The New York Times. He retired as their GM and wanted to get out of New York, so he moved to Seattle. My parents ran the ballet company, and he was a big ballet fan, and they started to hang out. He was kind of a hard-nose, old-school businessman that had to deal with unions. He told me, “whether people like it or not, they need direction. If the best way to get your business done is to be a jerk, than that’s what you need to do. You may get along with your staff, and hopefully you do, but you have to be a business owner first.” I learned a lot from him about being tough and standing your ground by listening to his stories about running the NY Times, and what it was like when he was a reporter.

HS: Is there any thing you would do differently?
ES: I’d change the first one, Union, style-wise. I'd change the design of the room. It was an existing space, and it would have cost a lot to totally remodel the space. You shouldn't spend so much money that it will take you 10 years to pay it back.