Makini Howell.jpg
Just over two months ago, Makini Howell opened Plum Bistro in the Piston & Ring Building on Capitol Hill. "I've always wanted to be in

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"I don't want another damn salad." Grillaxin' with Makini Howell of Plum Bistro

Makini Howell.jpg
Just over two months ago, Makini Howell opened Plum Bistro in the Piston & Ring Building on Capitol Hill. "I've always wanted to be in this area," says Howell, who was (and still is) running the show at The Cafe by Hillside Quickies, one of the three outposts of her family's local mini-empire of vegan sandwich shops. "It reminds of where I used to live in New York, with lots of different kinds of people, lots of great restaurants." At Plum, Howell is moving beyond the sandwiches and salads of the cafe and into full bistro mode. She's serving the flavorful, diverse dishes she's cooked at home for many years -- things like spicy mac 'n' yease, sloppy joe quinoa sliders, spicy red Thai tempeh, tofu 'strami on rye sandwiches, and eggplant linguine.

The Hillside Quickies shops are a family business, right?

Yes. My mother started her business 25 years ago, selling sandwiches in Tacoma and Olympia. She had the first tofu sandwich in the Seattle market. My brother, who has since moved to New York, started the U District shop. Five years ago, I started the cafe up on 15th Avenue.

Did you always plan to join the family business? And were you working as a chef in New York?

No, actually. I'm a clothing designer, and that's what I'd been doing for ten years in New York. I moved back because I just wanted to take a break and to spend time with my family. I thought I'd be here six months. And now here I am, and I just signed a 12-year lease for Plum, which just seems crazy.

Do you miss working as a designer?

Not really. Both the cafe and Plum are realizations of things I've always wanted to do. It was just a matter of making it happen here. When I was in New York, even living in Brooklyn, I was frustrated by the lack of vegan options. Eating out almost always meant having a salad. And finally I was like, "I don't want another damn salad."

I'm not trying to push any big vegan agenda here. People should be able to eat whatever they want. All I'm saying is that there should be more options out there. More places should include us. Plum is not just a vegan restaurant -- it's a place that uses other sources of protein.

So you're trying to reach a range of eaters, not just vegans?

We get a lot of omnivores in here. It's a totally different customer than the sandwich shops, and I like that variety. That's what I was hoping for. Plum is really the first of its kind. My vision is that it's a New American restaurant -- it's not culturally specific. It's a total package: You can get a cocktail, you can get an appetizer, share some small plates, get an entree. And it's all vegan. Again, we're adding sources of protein. I'm not trying to replace anything.

You've been a vegan all your life, right?

Yes. So I'm really not trying to replace anything, because I don't feel -- and I've never felt -- like I'm "missing" anything. For me, vegan food is about flavor first. Once you know what flavors you like, you can achieve that taste with anything. I use wheat proteins, soy, bulgur, quinoa. It's a breeze.

Wait a minute. I just realized you've never eaten a piece of chicken. Or have you?

(Grins.) No. Never.

As a chef, though, do you feel like your knowledge of food and flavor is somehow incomplete? What I mean is, chefs who are carnivores know what it tastes like to cook all vegetarian or vegan food, but you don't know what it's like to cook with animal fat or meat.

I don't see it as incomplete at all. I really see it as something totally different. I have a deeper knowledge of how to work with a totally different set of proteins, so I feel maybe even more complete. And actually, I have cooked meat before in a restaurant.

Really! Where?

I cooked with chef Wayne Johnson at Andaluca. He's an amazing person. I met him at the Food as Art Fundraiser, and he invited me to cook in his kitchen for a month. I learned so much. He has incredibly organized systems that make his kitchen work smoothly, and I've tried to implement them here. I also met a lot of the guys who work in the kitchen here now when I was at Andaluca. They are career cooks, so I've got a strong kitchen staff here.

What was it like working on the line there? And what was it like cooking meat?

Well, it was definitely different. I got my butt whooped on the line. But then I got the hang of it. And as for the meat, that was fine. But all I have to say is: Do you know how you test for the doneness of meat? You make a fist, and see how the meat feels compared to the way the flesh on your human hand feels. I mean, think about that, carnivores. That's downright crazy.

 
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