Theirs is a pairing that came like an unexpected food-and-wine treat for residents of the Pacific Northwest in 2001. After 17 years, and multiple fine dining restaurants, a brewery, a sports bar and a distillery to their name, the duo is still going as strong as ever, in a friendship and partnership that couldn’t have happened to two more dissimilar people.
“Our personalities are remarkably different in every way — except that we are both very competitive,” says Erik, the affable sommelier, whose mastery of his trade is charmingly offset by a steadfast refusal to take himself seriously. And then there is Chef John Howie, with a larger-than-life persona that is as generous in heart as it is at the table.
By pooling inspirations, they have created the John Howie brand that now towers over the Seattle-Bellevue food and beverage scene with restaurants like John Howie Steak and Seastar Restaurant & Raw Bar in Bellevue, Beardslee Public House & Brewery in Bothell and SPORT Restaurant & Bar in Seattle. They have collaborated visions on Wildwood Spirits, a micro distillery that produces the award-winning Kur Gin and Stark Vatten vodka. And at a time when a lot of restaurants are struggling to turn profits and stay open for business, John and Erik are consolidating their multiple company interests with a talented and loyal staff force, some of whom have stuck by them for almost two decades.
For Chef John Howie and Erik Liedholm, the journey so far has been quite interesting indeed. And people are always curious to know how it all started.
“I had come to Seattle from Carmel, California, to open the Grand Hyatt as the property’s F&B director,” recalls Erik. “I was happy at my job with an established corporation in a new city, when I got a call from the front desk, saying a man had just come in to see me.” Thinking it was a guest or a vendor who needed his assistance, Erik went down to find a “big dude in a big leather jacket” who had a most unexpected proposition for him. The man was opening an upscale seafood restaurant called Seastar in Bellevue and he wanted Erik to be the wine director. His name was John Howie.
Who is John Howie and where is Bellevue, was Erik’s first reaction to being propositioned like this by a perfect stranger, and of course, he turned the offer down. Little did he know that John Howie had set his heart on co-opting Erik into his grand plans for Seastar, and when John wanted something so bad, he usually got it. “Funny thing is, I wasn’t even his first choice,” says Erik. “I was probably his third.”
When John’s favorite sommeliers did not work out, he was told by Nancy Leson (who was then the restaurant critic at the Seattle Times) that he couldn’t do better than this rising star, freshly come to Seattle, called Erik Liedholm. Impressed by Nancy’s impression, John knew in his gut that Erik was probably the right man for the job, and he refused to back down until Erik said yes.
“He wasn’t putting me on a pedestal. I knew I wasn’t the first sommelier he was approaching, but he suckered me into it anyway,” says Erik. “He showed up at my place of work again, this time with a blank sheet of paper on which I could write down anything I wanted.”
So Erik wrote down what he calls “a funny little list”, staking the next phase of his career on a piece of paper. “A lot of things in it were personal stuff,” he says. “I wanted a healthy work-life balance. I wanted to be able to have dinner with my daughters and put them to bed most nights. I wanted some ownership in the company. I also put down specific operational things that I thought were needed to have a successful wine program.”
To everything Erik wrote on that list, John said yes, yes, and yes.
The Chef also recalls this incident in his book Passion And Palate – Recipes For A Generous Table: “I agreed to Erik’s funny little list of demands – it really wasn’t that little – and so we became partners in 2001. And looking back, I believe my partnership with Erik is one of the best moves I ever made.
“Erik’s philosophy was that people should drink the wine they love with the food they love,” he continues in the book. “That they should not feel intimidated by wine or sommeliers, that they should be comfortable with wine. I loved the idea and Erik brought it to life. And our wine program flourished, receiving immediate accolades that included “Best New Wine List In America” from Food & Wine Magazine.”
Erik also brings life to their restaurants. “From his amazing sense of humor – he can do impressions of anyone [still can’t get him to do me in front of me though] — to his incredibly funny poems, skits and quips that he shares at every crew meeting or special occasion.”
Over the years, Erik’s position within this partnership has matured and morphed from a sommelier to a kind of sounding board for John, helping him open other restaurants and develop new positions within the company. The “funny little list” that Erik had written and John had accepted has become an invisible bond between the two that has never been challenged or broken.
“I think we are a perfect foil for each other,” says Erik. Being yin to John’s yang, his is often the quiet voice of reason that the Chef most listens to. “A lot of people are intimidated by John’s personality. But I can go back and forth with him, and challenge him where others will just back down and go away. If I see something that I think is legitimately not going to help the company, I will say it. I will give him my perspective. It does not always work because he is a stubborn dude. He will say `no’ right away to just about everything, but after a couple of days he will be willing to reconsider.
“We do argue and have differences of opinion I suppose, but you have to be able to do that to have maintenance in your life. Especially within any kind of long-term partnership. Transparency and open communication is key.”
The nicest thing about John Howie?
“How much he cares about people,” says Erik without a moment’s hesitation. “Behind that big persona is a genuinely caring heart. He does so much charity work, but I don’t think he gets enough credit for it. A lot of other proprietors in this business play up how they are giving back, and they don’t even raise as much money or do as many things as John does. But for whatever reason, the press does not see that or they just expect it or they are just spoiled by it – I don’t know.”
Unlike most successful food professionals, John is a devoted family man as well. “Yes, he is always making time for his family, which is rare for a restauranteur. One year for example, when his son was playing baseball, John travelled for a year, going wherever Jojo was playing. I don’t know many chef-owners who would do that.”
So what’s in future for the two?
“Right now, John is working hard to consolidate the company, but one day, I would not be surprised if he just put on a cowboy hat and rode off into the sunset.”
Would Erik follow?
“I don’t know,” he says, “I don’t like cowboy hats.”
But John isn’t done, and he’s quite emphatic that he isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. “I’m not sure about riding into the sunset just yet,” he says. “I’m as excited about our newest business, Wildwood Spirits Co. and The Beardslee Public House & Brewery as I was about Seastar and John Howie Steak when they opened. When I think about it, I may never be ready to leave the business completely, as I love what I do. I love what I get to do for my community, and I love the people I work with…Why would I leave that?”
Wildwood Spirits – which is currently enjoying a spate of media attention for its latest release, the Dark Door wheated bourbon — is something Erik would definitely want to devote more time to as well for the next 20 years, so it seems as if the Howie-Leidholm story is far from over.
Who can ever tell with these two? Maybe, it is still only the beginning.