Portrait of a Chef

On the Cutting Board with Russell Dean Lowell

There was a time when “chef” was a job title, not a real person and certainly not a “personality” worthy of public interest. Two decades of food-centric television have conditioned us to expect larger-than-life characters in the kitchen from Gordon Ramsey’s angry tirades to the “BAM” made famous by Emeril Lagasse. But chefs, like all of us, are complicated people. And while their success in the restaurant industry obviously requires skills in the kitchen, they possess varying degrees of skill when it comes to guest interaction, hospitality, community involvement, and public relations (especially dealing with, ahem, food writers). Over the years, I’ve met all types. Flashy, friendly, ego-centric, shy, insecure — chefs come in every flavor.


Chef Russell Dean Lowell has been on the periphery of my radar for years. I remember meeting him at a festival event a number of years ago when he told me that his eponymous restaurant was the “best restaurant you’ve never heard of.”

He was correct about the nearly secret status of Russell’s Restaurant & Loft. Tucked away into a refurbished barn in a business park in an unlikely part of Bothell, Russell’s must be sought out. One does not simply stumble upon Russell’s. Nor will you find scores of articles written about Russell’s. No influencer Instagram feeds drooling over his restaurant. Indeed, not even a restaurant review in a local publication — a noticeable sore point for the chef. But, meet an actual diner who has been there and the story changes. Or talk to a local winemaker who has partnered with Chef Lowell for a winemaker dinner and you’ll hear the verbal equivalent of fan mail.

Wine industry photographer Richard Duval suggested I get to know Chef Lowell, introducing me to the chef at a Woodinville wine event. Chef immediately gave me a copy of his book In Search of Duende and invited me out to his restaurant for a pre-dinner chat in the hot August sunshine.

“Did you read my book?” Lowell asked as I sat down on the bench outside of the barn-turned-restaurant. I hadn’t read anything all summer thanks to a flood of life circumstances running me ragged, but, ever the student trying to please the teacher, I mumbled a guilty, “Not yet, sorry” (a phrase I was forced to repeat a second time in September when I met with the chef again — not winning any teacher’s pet awards this summer).

I was struck by how quietly Chef Lowell speaks. I had decided to record the conversation audio on my phone instead of furiously scribbling every word into my trusty notebook and I was concerned it wouldn’t pick up his voice. He presented as a very mellow character that afternoon subtly rolling out his bag of stories. He is nothing if not a storyteller — literal fish stories (he is a world class fly fisherman) and then “fish” stories (though he always insists “it’s all true”).

Over the course of an hour and a bottle of his house-label wine, made by Hilary Sjolund and adorned with a colorful Russell-original fly, he painted a picture of his life — roots in Oregon’s rural Umpqua Valley with a gold miner grandfather and an aunt who taught him to fly fish, one of four rambunctious boys, raised in Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay, speaks fluent Spanish, bow hunter, loved and cared for his mother during her battle with cancer, cooked for the King of Spain, Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton, casual cookouts with Hollywood types like John Cusack, Mark Wahlberg, Kid Rock, and frequent beneficiary of “duende” — a Spanish term denoting something like a charm or uncanny good luck, the source of which is attached to or emanating from a person’s spirit.

As the conversation progressed, I noticed that the fisherman-chef had sunk some hooks and was quietly reeling me in. With a Russell tale, it can be hard to nail down timelines. Stories meander and weave around each other — fishing trips off the coast of Cuba and Mexico, bear hunts in Montana (hauling a bear carcass out on his shoulders through the snow), elk camp.

Chef Russell

Photo by Julie Arnan

Buttered up on borderline fantastical stories (what kind of writer would I be if I didn’t love a good story?), I realized we had barely touched on Russell as a chef. We moved the party indoors to the lounge and Chef Russell ordered some food for me. He disappeared briefly to cut meat in the kitchen. That’s a task over which he maintains nearly all of the control. “Meat is expensive” and he doesn’t want anyone to mess it up is the gist of his explanation. He buys whole fish and large cuts of meat opting to filet and cut portions himself. Sometimes he even brings diners back to the kitchen asking them to indicate how big of a steak they would like that night before slicing it in front of them.

Back in the lounge, a plate of pan seared sea scallops appeared nestled in a bed of microgreens and drizzled with lemon-thyme gastrique. Russell’s is where to go for a perfectly executed sauce — gastrique, beurre blanc, glace and demi-glace made with roasted duck bones. The pan seared rack of lamb elicited more than one moan of pleasure, tender and rich with mustard demi-glace accompanied by a hearty side of mushroom risotto silky with butter. Long Shadows’ director of winemaking Gilles Nicault professed such love for the duck confit, it now bears his name: Duck Nicault.

Chef ordered the grilled salmon plain (specifically, without the usual beurre blanc sauce). It was accompanied by house-made gnocchi and, unfortunately for the server who took the order, it came slathered in beurre blanc earning him a narrowed eye of irritation from Lowell — a gesture so slight, the server didn’t even know anything was amiss. I couldn’t help but imagine Gordon Ramsey’s response to that situation — top volume, filled with furious insults.

A few weeks later, I returned to watch Chef Lowell cut meat and try some other dishes. I found him in the lounge, sitting in a deep chair on the far side backlit by the still-bright evening. He was somber emitting a palpable cloud of melancholy. He was days away from an elk bow hunting trip in northeastern Oregon and had a terrible practice session that day. On top of that, a dear friend was on her way out, about to pass on to the next life. Chef was even more quiet than usual. I wondered aloud if another day might be better for our meat demonstration, but, no, he had to cut the meat anyways.

Back in the kitchen, he set up the station and indicated that I should stand in a corner behind him and to the right. Basically, stay out of the way. The kitchen was bustling with preparations for a catering event upstairs in the loft and dinner service. There was no music playing and for the most part the kitchen staff was quiet — focused on their respective tasks. Occasionally, Chef would speak to a staff member, often in Spanish. He brought out three beef tenderloins and a large sirloin roast (New York steaks are cut from this roast).

Snick, snick, snick. Chef honed his slicing knife and began cleaning up the first tenderloin removing sinew and gristle to reveal the deep iron-red, delicately marbled loin. Very little ended up in the trash can – only the unpalatable sinew and, once he got to the New York steaks, the rubber band-like nerve that runs through that roast. All of the extra tips and bits that he removed went into bins destined for appetizers like Teriyaki Tenderloin Tips or ground into burgers. That’s right, the Barn Burger at Russell’s is comprised of ground tenderloin and New York steak pieces. On a busy night, Chef says he cuts 30-40 steaks for service.

“Do you want something to drink?” he kept asking as I was shooting photos of the meat demonstration and taking notes. I declined as I had enough things to hold at the moment. When the steaks were all cut, we retired back to the lounge for that drink — a Ketel One vodka martini, straight up for Chef, with olives for me. A female guest in the bar had a colorful, intricate tattoo encasing one leg inspiring a discussion about tattoos — none for Chef, one for me. Mine, a pixie-esque woodland gnome character from an Italian book called Fate (Brian Froud and Alan Lee, 1988, Rizzoli Editore).

“A pixie? Ah, duende,” he replied. I looked at him quizzically for a second. “You’d know if you read my book.” I rolled my eyes, drank the wine, ate the tenderloin, went home and read the book. Chef Lowell’s next book, Every Hour, Every Day will be published in December. Not wanting to risk a slightly narrowed eye from Chef and a plausible “no soup for you” moment, you can bet I’m carving out some reading time over the holidays.

Russell's

Photo by Richard Duval

 

When You Go
Russell’s Restaurant is located at 3305 Monte Villa Parkway in Bothell. It serves lunch Monday-Friday and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. Happy hour is Tuesday-Friday from 4-6 p.m. Also find Russell’s Garden Café and Wine Bar inside Molbak’s Garden Home at 13625 N.E. 175th St. in Woodinville; russelllowell.com

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