How vegan chef Makini Howell made Stevie Wonder a fan

February 16, 2018 | Seattle
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Makini Howell is a woman many regard as a veteran in her field. She is the owner and chef of Plum Bistro, a 100% plant-based, American-Northwest influenced restaurant that has been providing Seattleites with alternative food options for almost 10 years. “I am a woman — and I am a Black woman. It is really hard to run a restaurant and I have done it super successfully,” said Makini proudly.

Along with Plum Bistro, Makini also owns and operates salad bar Plum Chop't, Sugar Plum for those with a sweet tooth, Plum Pantry in Seattle Center, and the Plum Bistro Food truck. Makini believes it’s been positive for those in her community to see ownership in a different way. “I think people are very positively surprised and they’re admiring of it — they’re like, ‘You go girl!’”

Her passion for plant-based cuisine stems from her life journey as a vegan who had limited options growing up. “I wanted a place like this that I could go to because I was raised vegan, and everywhere that you went was like a hole in the wall. There was no place that was really nice, that didn’t hit you over the head with being vegan.”

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Her deliberate focus on ensuring the menu at Plum Bistro incorporates multiple influences—East Indian, Latin, and Afghan—has been well-received by Seattle. “The people of Seattle are amazing. They’re super open to veganism…just being open to diversity and inclusion I think has been super helpful,” said Makini. With a prime location in Capitol Hill, as well as the opportunity to occupy a mixed-use space, Plum Bistro has become one of the top choices among restaurants in the neighborhood versus solely the vegan choice. “We always have lines, and we always appear super busy so people come back. I appreciate being one of the successful restaurants in Capitol Hill,” she added.

Though she is very proud of her accomplishments, Makini is still her own toughest critic. Having been featured in many publications, from the Seattle Times to Kitchen Creativity calling her one of the most creative chefs in the world, she confessed, “I got a little shook. I was like, ‘Oh my god, am I? Can I do that?’ But then I was like, ‘No, I can.’” The seasoned restaurateur also credits her success to the strong team she works with every day.

The deliciousness and beauty of Plum Bistro’s menu items evolved from many areas of Makini’s life, though one inspires her the most. In 2014, Stevie Wonder walked into her restaurant with his daughter and personal chef. “They really enjoyed themselves and they bought the cookbook, and were like ‘Oh snap! It’s Black-owned?’—because Plum Bistro doesn’t read vegan, it doesn’t read Black-owned, it doesn’t really read any of those things.” That visit led to a special opportunity to work for the music legend. “My tour with Stevie Wonder was my absolute biggest inspiration thus far. When you cook for somebody everyday, 3 or 4 times a day, you learn how to cook. He really liked really good food, so…I learned how to make really good food versus just making vegan food,” said Makini.

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The societal and cultural components of how Makini’s food impacts others is not lost on the restaurateur. “I’ve shocked my community, not because I’m a Black woman but because I had sort of a novel idea. I became one of the most successful people in the group of those who came along at the time that I did,” said Makini. With the added element of celebrating Black History month, Makini recognizes the deep roots food has in Blackness and with Black people. “But food has deep roots with everybody,” she added. There is no celebration too big or small that doesn’t involve food in every culture—whether it’s a birthday, a wedding, and so on. “We have so much stuff that happens in this restaurant—people propose, they have gender reveals, they have graduations…food is just at the center of all of that, whatever color you are.”

The reaction people have to Makini’s food still tickles her. From her perspective, it’s just tofu—something she grew up eating when it wasn’t popular. “I’m just really appreciative of how much people have, you know, embraced it. Nobody has tried to open up an Apricot next door. They’ve sort of let me do my thing,” Makini joked. And while she doesn’t have a dish that’s closest to her heart, Makini immediately recalls the go-to favorite of her customer base: Mac n’ Yease. “We could not have a restaurant without the Mac n’ Yease. It’s a vegan mac and cheese, or plant-based mac and cheese. Oh my god, people are so funny about it,” she laughed.

To those who have never tried Plum Bistro, or plant-based cuisine before, Makini had this sage advice: “Don’t be afraid of the tofu, it’s just tofu! It’s really just plants. They’re really tasty plants. You don’t have to stop eating meat, but you should probably start eating some plants.”

Posted by Brittinee Phillips
Category: Talk of the Table