Chef John Howie Talks Meat and Seattle Restaurant History
Welcome back to Carnivore’s Dilemma, a column that features recommendations on how to prepare and where to eat meat from Seattle chefs that venture well beyond steak and burgers.
When you think of cities like New York or Chicago, old-school steakhouses quickly come to mind. The deep, dark, wood-paneled interiors are reminiscent of decadent meals and the likes of Al Capone. And while Seattle sports a few good meat-centric restaurants, it’s still hard to beat legends like Brooklyn’s Peter Luger’s and Chi-town’s Gibson’s.
However, if you want a truly amazing meatgasm there is only one destination in the area that truly compares to the greats – John Howie Steak in nearby Bellevue. With a diverse menu that includes an abundance of local, seasonal products; John Howie brings us the new school of steak houses with an emphasis on selection and quality while still giving those who don’t want a hunk of bovine deliciousness an opportunity to dine well and not feel left out.
I had the chance to meet with meat-master Chef John Howie to talk about what makes his namesake steakhouse the best and his plans to open his next venture, the Beardslee Public House, this summer in Bothell. Here’s what the Steak King of Seattle had to say…
So tell me about your background and why you became a Chef
To be honest, it was never a planned career for me. I just needed a job. When I was 15 I was moving out of my house. My mom had a rough life and my father had been killed when I was four. She’d moved out here and remarried and became a raging alcoholic.
So, I took care of the family from the ages of 10-15 cooking, cleaning, everything. And I was probably doing some things I shouldn’t have been doing as well. But I needed a job when I left home and I went to work in a restaurant. Not knowing what was going to happen; I took a job at Emmet’s in Bellevue.
Wow – that is a very tough way to grow up.
Well, I found that I had a knack for this business and a large part of that came from my mom and my grandmother. They were very good cooks and whatever they did happen to cook they made It taste great. My competitive nature is what helped give me the drive and passion to succeed in the beginning.
Part of it was not having a father and a mom who was having problems. I wanted recognition and I wanted someone to tell me that what I did was good. Within 6 months, I ran the restaurant on Sunday and Monday nights. Now, it was only 20-30 covers and it was sleepy Bellevue back then but I did it. I was good at it and I had good motor skills, good organizational skills and I understood how to work with food.
An auspicious start for sure. Where did you go from there?
After that it became moving from one job to the next for several years. I was at The Butcher (a Schwartz Bros. restaurant) – and there was one in SoDo and one here (in Bellevue). I got to do a little creative work and they put it on their menu. I was there from when I was 16 to 18 years old.
It was fun and I got to meet interesting people along the way. John Schwartz would bring people in and I’d make breakfast – Sam Schulman, Sonny Jurgensen, the Sonics – you name it. We’d get a phone call and they’d tell us we had to stay open after the games sometimes to serve the team. So, I’d stay there and cook for them.
I was making all of $5.85 an hour and I wanted a raise – and I wasn’t going to get one. So I went and applied for a few jobs in the Seattle area. It was the time of restaurants with really long names. This was when there were places like Lion O’Reilly’s, B.J. Monkeyshines (with booths that closed up and all that) and Boondock’s Sundeckers. I applied to work for Gerry Kingen’s company which owned Salty’s and also had the Great American Food & Beverage Co. (with singing waiters).
I went to Boondocks which was a bit like 13 Coins and I worked from 8 pm to 4 am. I met many interesting people, the menu was huge and we’d prep everything. There were a lot of different cuisines. I also worked at Sunday’s – and it was actually the old church at the base of Queen Anne where Metropolitan Market is now. The dining room was inside the sanctuary and downstairs was Seattle’s most popular disco. Then I worked at 13 Coins, at Simon’s in Tukwila owned by Larry Hamlin who had stolen Canlis’ chef to open the restaurant and learned some of their food. I worked with the chef at Commander’s Palace and a bunch of other interesting folks. Everywhere I went I’d pick up a bit from each individual I worked with.
Where did you work before you opened Seastar?
When I went to work for Restaurants Unlimited Rich Komen was the owner. Honestly, I never thought I’d leave. Rich sold the company to Eli Jacobs which was a conglomerate – they owned the Baltimore Orioles, Memorex, Le Peep, etc. We effectively became an asset in their bankruptcy filing.
Then Rich bought it back but it had started to change. Money became the focus as opposed to the guest so I decided to do my own thing. I gathered a few people together to invest and it started with Gary Payton. We got a group together and tried to find a spot.
Four years later ended up where we are now (in Bellevue). It was originally supposed to be in Kemper’s building which is now a bank. I looked at the Red Robin space but I knew that Cheesecake was going to open up and I knew I’d be fine because they had lines out the door. Then I looked at Lincoln Square and thank God didn’t do that. It brought me to the current location and didn’t know how I’d figure out what to do with this big U-shaped space. A year and a half later, after negotiating with real estate developers, we got it built.
What a long road to open your first place. And not at a great time either right?
We opened in March 11, 2002. Right after the .com bust – and the entire idea of the restaurant had changed so much from the original concept and the economic environment had changed. I had conservative projections and fortunately I was able to keep my house and everything else. I had a lot of people’s lives involved too. I had taken 3 sous from Palisade with me as well as many others so the pressure was on and they weren’t very happy with me. It turned out OK though.
After about three months you could feel it starting to grow. After the first year we knew we’d be fine. Six years of growth and then – 2008 hit and we lost 33% of our sales immediately. We decided to discount to get people in the door and didn’t lay off a single person. I had already opened Adriatic Grill, SPORT, and was planning on this place and Seastar downtown too.
With your well-documented success at Seastar and all things seafood – why did you decide to open a steak house?
Because we didn’t feel anyone was doing it to the degree of quality that you could in the area. We just felt there was a market gap and no one doing it properly.
We felt like we could offer something that was more unusual than the common steakhouse – more chef driven. We wanted to include that and Northwest products in a steakhouse menu. All of our mushrooms are locally foraged and our produce is local.
There are restaurants that offer great service but there aren’t many of them. We wanted to bring that back with a true steakhouse feel – with great, classic service.
How does your menu reflect your continually diversifying consumer base?
With having Microsoft in the buildings above us there are lots of Hindus and Muslims who didn’t want to eat beef or who require Halal products. So we created lots of vegetarian options on the menu that our client base would eat. We also rotate the menu seasonally and our servers are well versed on how to modify items to suit vegans and lacto or ovo intolerant customers.
What are the differences in cooking at a Steak house vs. a ‘typical’ restaurant?
Well, you do have a larger inventory than at a traditional restaurant. Right now, we probably have about 30 thousand dollars-worth of beef in this house. I don’t even have 30 grand worth of food at Seastar.
We also do dry aging both off and on premises. We have the American, Australian and Japanese Wagyu on the menu all the time – it adds up very quickly.
My chef here, Mark Hipkiss, is excellent at managing the meat program and having so many offerings. I hired Mark as a 19-year-old kid to help open Palisade in Magnolia with me. His dad was a butcher so he fully understands meat. Because of his organization skills and understanding of product he knows how to run a great steakhouse kitchen. He understands the concept of where we are trying to go and he’s going to enhance that vs. take away from it.
What chefs have inspired you?
It’s funny but there’s been a few. I’ll start with Kim Hales who was a chef at Simon’s. Kim had worked with Paul Prudhomme at Commanders Palace and he taught me everything I knew about Cajun and Creole cooking. My wife’s favorite dish is blackened salmon because we can’t get redfish here.
There’s also a gentleman from Restaurants Unlimited – Garret Cho from Hawaii. He has a great palate, easygoing demeanor and I learned a lot about Hawaiian fish and foods from him. The blending of spice and fresh fruits to create salsas that work really well with fish cooked over live fires. I have a lot of respect for his work ethic and palate.
Another chef, which is a little unusual because he works for me now, is David Putaportiwon. He had gone to Japan and learned how to make sushi. When I started to work for Restaurants Unlimited in ‘88 David was one of the chefs there and he taught me how to roll sushi and make rice. He’s worked with me, other than when he went to work at Boeing as an engineer for a bit, for 26 years now.
What is your cooking philosophy?
Mine is to use the best products you can find ad try not to screw them up. You know, it’s funny because when I try to explain to people what Seastar is – it’s really just food I like to eat. I’ll go somewhere and find things that inspire me. People sometimes think it’s a fusion place but no – if I find something I like I will try to be as true to that cuisine as I can be.
There’s a reason why those things have withstood the test of time. My jamabalya is no different from what you’d find in New Orleans. There’s nothing new about our French onion soup. It’s made with 4-day veal stock – not with a package of au jus. Just stay true to the actual cuisine and products.
So what’s the John Howie Steak secret for grilling meat?
When we opened we knew we wanted to have different cooking sources. I’ve always been a huge fan of mesquite grilling for USDA prime meats. I think there’s no better way to have ‘em. I wish we could do it on our trio or quad plate.
And we wanted a flat top with sea salt for searing. I also wanted to have an Applewood grill and I believe there’s flavor and smoke that are integral to seafood and pork and chicken.
When we cook American Wagyu we do it with mesquite. The Aussie and Japanese Wagyu are simply seared with sea salt and nothing else. A large part of it is about texture.
Tell me about the Beardslee Public House opening and how it will differ from your earlier ventures
It’s been a dream of mine for about 5 or 6 years now and we’re targeting a July opening. Honestly, part of it is that it’s easier to make money with beer than food (laughing). And the beer culture has grown so much – it’s so popular now.
We’ll start with 12 beers on tap and will open with a couple of guest taps most likely. My brewer is Drew Cluley – and he’s a 20 year brewer. He was at Pyramid and then was the head brewer at The Pike Brewing Company. I stole him away from Big Time and we’re happy to have him onboard.
Ok – but will there be a plethora of sausages?
Myself and my partner Erik Liedholm, we believe that we have palates that really understand what other people like. If we like it, everyone else seems to like it. We believe we can do it as good as or better than others. If it’s our distilled products or our brewed products – we knew we could do it well.
We also started to think about doing a more casual concept than Seastar or the Steakhouse. I’m a huge fan of charcuterie and we’re going to be making our own in house. We’ll be doing both whole muscle and ground – coppa, guanciale, about 10 different sausages as well as landjaeger.
Our pork is coming from Salmon Creek – they raise Kurobuta (Berkshire) breed. We’re also doing chicken mole sausage which goes great with a couple of the beers we will have on tap. Will also sell sausage raw for take home as well as pickled vegetables and cheese.
Sounds great. What else is on the menu?
We have a pizza oven and are doing a different style of pizza dough with malt in it. It looks like a thicker type of dough but it eats like a crispy dough which is my favorite.
We’re also doing burgers with USDA prime ground beef – we’ll just flat top ‘em and put a nice sear on them. And we’re baking all our own breads and buns.
What are your favorite preparations of meat?
If I was to have any steak I could have – I would have a bone in Delmonico. I like a bit of chew to my meat and it’s got more than enough fat to give you great flavor – but it has to be mesquite grilled.
Corn-fed or Grass-fed Beef? Why?
Well, corn finished really. That is the USDA prime. Grass-fed prime is almost an oxymoron. You really can’t put the fat onto the cattle with grass alone. That’s why we go the corn finished direction.
I try grass fed constantly. We’ll sit down with ranchers and they will insist it’s just as good. But it’s just not there. If we were to start serving that I think people would be disappointed. Grass finished cattle has its place but it’s just not in this steakhouse.
All the Wagyu’s are fed a higher protein diet – flax seed, brewing grains and not as much corn. But the prime that we’re getting out of Greater Omaha in Nebraska – I think has gotten better over last 5 years. The corn is different and there’s a lot more non-GMO stuff going on, no hormones.
There’s a lot of corn being used to create Ethanol and the byproduct is corn that has been partly ground which is then fed to cattle. It’s easier to digest than whole corn which is what we traditionally fed to cattle and I think the better marbling is because of this.
What off-beat meat dishes should people look for?
If you’re a ribeye fan – you’ve got to have a rib cap steak. That, to me, is a steak that will blow you away with flavor. But you’ve got to be willing to eat a rich steak.
When buying meat, what should people look for?
To be honest, if I don’t take my meat from my restaurant, then I’ll buy Prime at Costco. They cut the whole muscle and you are going to get everything. I tell my friends that if you’re New York is smiling at you – don’t buy it. It’ll just be a big piece of sinew. If I see a strong pack of filets that’s a strong center cut I’ll buy ‘em. There’s good butcher shops out there that you can get great meat at or even grocery stores. Just look for the finest and most complete marbling you can find.
Next thing in meat – what’s coming? Cuts/Animals/Preparations?
Well, no one is going to find a new piece of the cow that we haven’t used yet at this point. Oxtail is like $7-8 a pound now and beef cheeks are wonderful but expensive. We have the zabuton here and the prime is used for sandwiches. But in Japanese and Australian Wagyu it’s not nearly as chewy. It’s probably the most unusual thing we serve.
What’s your guilty pleasure with food?
I’m more of a salty guy. I mean, if I could eat a bag of potato chips all at once. We’re making these spent grain pretzels for Beardslee – those things are so good. Just a subtle taste of the beer grain in there. Here I could eat gougeres, pretzel rolls, roasted garlic ciabatta, Beecher’s cheese sticks – I could sit and eat that all day.
Final question – What’s your go-to karaoke song?
Well, you know, I haven’t done it too much but I kind of got forced into it when I went to China. We were there visiting these restaurateur/businessmen – they have this club in Xi’an. It’s an amazing club that’s has an auditorium like the Paramount. They have people coming out dancing, playing piano – and then out comes this karaoke machine.
The Chairman sings (I was told he doesn’t do this often) and then, of course, he hands the microphone to me. At that point I’d had enough drinks to sing Hotel California. I know I probably butchered it but my partner told me I did well. So I’ll go with that!
*portions of this story originally appeared in Eater Seattle