Guests clamor for Chef John Howie’s Thanksgiving feast — golden-brown turkeys, pillowy mounds of mashed potatoes and an endless parade of pumpkin pies. However, it’s his special ingredient that leaves guests most satisfied.
For the past decade, Howie — award-winning proprietor of Bellevue’s John Howie Steak and Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar — and his family have opened their hearts and restaurant to serve upwards of 500 underprivileged guests every Thanksgiving.
“I was struggling with not feeling as thankful when Thanksgiving began, feeling like it was just another day of cooking,” said Howie. “So, my wife and I decided to open the restaurant (Seastar) to low-income families and treat them to something special. After the first year, we knew we’d continue doing it forever.”
Guests are referred by Eastside charitable organizations such as Bellevue LifeSpring, Hopelink, Olive Crest, Redmond YWCA and more. There is no charge for the three-course, fine-dining feast. Some diners attend because they’re unable to prepare a meal or can’t afford to. Others are in need of fellowship. Foster families are often invited so they can enjoy a stress-free holiday.
No one leaves hungry. The day requires a veritable flock of turkeys — 500 pounds — and more than 300 pounds of potatoes and 90 pounds of cranberry sauce.
A mother and her two daughters moved to Seattle in 2009 and have repeatedly attended Seastar’s Thanksgiving. The mom previously cooked holiday dinners herself, but financial struggles became an obstacle to her continuing to do so.
“Thanksgiving definitely would have fallen by the wayside without this,” the thankful mom said. “It’s really a chance for us to be together and eat at the same table.”
Pictures taken during the festivities serve as the mother’s annual Christmas card. She also documents the table and place settings so she can replicate them when she eventually resumes her own celebrations.
“The big thing it instills in the children is a sense of giving back. Chef Howie takes the time to interact with guests and shake hands. For my daughters, they see that even if you’re not able to give financially, your time and lending a helping hand is just as valuable,” the mother added.
About 75 volunteers donate their time as dishwashers, servers and more. Many Seastar employees participate and look forward to it as an annual tradition. The Howies’ two sons and toddler grandchild are regular faces at the event.
“It’s been a natural evolution for us that we feel it’s now more fun to serve others,” said Debbie Amble, who has volunteered with her husband, Gunnar, for seven years.
“There are a lot of moms with kids and, for some, it’s their first time in a fancy restaurant. The children are all dressed up and we’ve heard some say they specifically saved money to buy them new clothes. It’s a very sweet and poignant day,” Amble said.
After the guests leave, the volunteers enjoy a communal Thanksgiving meal and swap stories.
For Howie, helping others is an opportunity to feel thankful yourself. He hopes the spirit carries into everyday life.
“We all tend to think of doing something on Thanksgiving,” said Howie. “But for places like the food banks or Union Gospel Mission, there are many other days in the year to help, too.”
Serve Others This Thanksgiving
Food: At the YMCA’s Lake Heights Center in Bellevue, you can donate a basket with a Thanksgiving dinner for a family in need. See online for details. Also with Bellevue LifeSpring’s Adopt-a-Family program, you can sponsor a family for a holiday meal.
Money: Hopelink’s Turkey Trot, on Sunday, Nov. 24, at Marina Park in Kirkland, is a fundraiser for the organization, which has been helping low-income families in the area for more than 40 years.
Time: Contact local assisted living homes to find elderly people with no family in the area, or get in touch with a homeless shelter, such as the Salvation Army, for families who have no home in which to celebrate the holidays.