Category: Eat + Drink Articles
If I had a bookie, I’d give him a call and wager big bucks that you’ve been to one of Ethan Stowell’s restaurants (Union, Tavolàta and How to Cook a Wolf ). Each one is a certified hit, and Stowell was recently named one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs. One of Stowell’s secrets is hiring great people—a staff so reliable that, once a week, he gets an actual day off. How does he spend it? What does he cook? I tagged along on a recent Sunday to find out.
The Dish: Steamed Manila clams with fennel and young garlic.
The Shopping: We meet up at the Taylor Shellfish Stand at the Ballard Farmers’ Market, where Stowell buys the last bag of clams and chats with his friend and supplier “Oyster Bill” Whitbeck. “What are the qualifications for Best New Chef?” asks Whitbeck.
“Five years or less. I just fit through the door sideways,” replies Stowell, who opened Union in 2003. We take two laps around the market, and Stowell finds some kale and baby leeks that look fresh and vigorous enough to meet his standards, and he buys several bunches of each. On the way back to his Queen Anne house, he decides that one bag of clams isn’t enough, so we stop at How to Cook a Wolf for some extras. (They’d been destined for Wolf’s Manila clams with Controne beans, bacon and parsley.)
The Conversation: In the early days of Union, when Stowell lived in an apartment near the restaurant, he and his then-girlfriend (now wife) Angela decided to roast a chicken for dinner. “It was the first time I’d turned on the oven and I’d lived there for a year and a half,” he remembers. “I had to ask Angela to run down to the bar downstairs to get salt and olive oil.”
“I went to the convenience store,” Angela corrects him. “You threw $5 out the window at me. I thought I was going to get robbed.”
The Cooking: Stowell opens a 5-liter can of Merula olive oil from Spain (his favorite) by hammering it with a chef’s knife. “Everybody has a knife they don’t care about,” says Stowell. “This is mine.” He decants the oil into a squeeze bottle and anoints nearly everything with it for the rest of the evening, until the bottle is almost empty. He squirts some oil into a stockpot and sautés young garlic, fennel and celery, then adds white wine and the clams, and cranks the heat up to high.
The Eating: Stowell is the most laid-back restaurateur-three-times-over I’ve ever met. “Sundays are good days,” he says. He stirs the clams and, once they’ve opened, dumps the contents of the pot into a large bowl and finishes the dish with lemon juice and parsley. “These are the bigger clams,” says Stowell. “They’ve got a little more chew, but a lot more flavor, too.” I dip some bruschetta, crisp from the panini grill, into the clam broth; a combination of olive oil and hearty broth dribbles down my chin. Hmm, if you want to be a Best New Chef, I guess awesome clam broth doesn’t hurt.
Who’s Next: At the farmers’ market, we ran into Renee Erickson of Boat Street Café. “You should go to her place next,” said Stowell. Agreed! Renee, see you in the September issue.
Photo by Jim Henkens