"I want to be more Italian than anyone else in town," says Seattle chef Ethan Stowell—even at his Fourth of July party. He shows his ambition with a grilled feast on the beach.
For Seattle chef Ethan Stowell, the best part of July 4 isn't the flag-waving or the fireworks: It's that restaurants are, businesswise, always dead. That means he can count on time off from his culinary empire, which includes Tavolàta, How to Cook a Wolf, Anchovies & Olives and Staple & Fancy Mercantile. He and his wife, Angela, requisition some groceries from the restaurant pantries and take the ferry to his family's house on Whidbey Island for a cookout powered by bourbon-and-ginger-beer punch and Budweiser, his beer of choice.
Much like Stowell's restaurant cooking, his cooking for the party merges Pacific Northwest ingredients and an Italian sensibility. "I love this city, but I want to be different. I want to be more Italian than anyone else in town," he says. Each year, he sends a few members of his staff to Italy to eat, drink and absorb the country's food philosophy—which, as he sees it, is about preparing local ingredients in a casual, family-style setting. People love the clarity of Stowell's cooking; his menus reflect his no-bull attitude. "I like to keep things simple and make food better than people can make at home," he says.
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Stowell's restaurant menus often include burrata (cream-filled mozzarella), so he brings some to the cookout, piling cool slices of it onto grilled bread with mushrooms. Skewers of big shrimp flavored with lemon and capers meet the hottest part of the grill for just long enough; the flesh stays tender, practically sweet. Lamb chops marinated with anchovy and mint, Mediterranean-style, are meant to be eaten with bare hands. For dessert: golden butter cookies and local strawberries doused with Prosecco.
Stowell has been celebrating Independence Day here on Whidbey Island since his parents bought the house in the late 1980s. Oddly, the story of how they acquired the property can be traced back to another holiday tradition: a Christmas performance of The Nutcracker. Stowell's parents were the founding artistic directors of the Pacific Northwest Ballet and directed it for nearly three decades, putting Tchaikovsky's classic at the heart of their holiday programming. In 1986, a movie based on their version was released. "It was terrible," Stowell says. "Nobody talks about it." One good thing that came out of the experience, though, was the money to buy the Whidbey Island place. It was a modest amount, in retrospect: $40,000.
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Ethan and Angela were married at the house because, he says, "It made no sense not to be." After the couple said "I do," Stowell got right down to business and immediately headed off to the kitchen to make dinner for the wedding guests.
Bethany Jean Clement is a writer and editor at The Stranger in Seattle.
Video: Fourth of July Grilling Tips