Tacoma's own born and raised award-winning chef
By Marguerite Cleveland | Photo by Samantha Elise Tillman
Remember this name, Chef Reginald Jacob Howell, because this young man is making a name for himself in the Pacific Northwest. He was the champ in the Chef’s Roll Chef’s Plate competition in 2019 and also the Industry Chef of the Year for Washington State 2019. In addition to his work as a sous chef at Nue, you can hire Howell at 253Degrees.com for a customized restaurant experience in your own home. Enjoy a four-course plated fine dining-style meal that is personalized to the client’s preference. Throughout the year, Chef Reginald holds popups at local restaurants. He is strongly influenced by Creole and Caribbean cuisine. Born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, from an early age, Reginald honed his skills in his grandmother’s kitchen. He learned farm-to-table—not in a high-end restaurant—but from using the ingredients fresh from the family’s garden. In college, he found he had a true passion for the culinary arts and decided to make that his career.
Although restaurant work does not leave lots of time for volunteer work, he supports local nonprofits—especially those with youth sports. He feels playing sports, such as with the Boys and Girls Club, helps provide school and college opportunities. Currently “Hard Work Beats Talent” run by Zachary Carter Jr., and “Warrior Academy”—a youth and family focused athletic training program—run by his fraternity brother Diandre Campbell, a former University of Washington WR and a former NFL receiver, are two of his favorites.
Q. Can you share with our readers the influence your grandmother had on your cooking?
A. I was raised by both my Great Grandmother Grace Garrett and Grandmother Mirlean Leenheer. Being the youngest of three brothers, I was able to stay home and spend most of my days with them both. It allowed me to shadow my grandmother in the kitchen and learn the recipes that she was once taught. Almost every day we were slacking whole chickens and frying them or making dinner rolls. We would spend some of the days working in the yard and tending to all the flowers and small veggies that we had. From learning to break down whole chickens and learning to nurture things became routine. My grandmothers were everything to me; they taught me how to take care of myself and others around me.
Q. What Pacific Northwest ingredients inspire your culinary creativity? A. From the (Puget) Sound of the PNW, I’m influenced by the fresh salmon, crab and oysters; from the slopes, I’m influenced by the abundance of mushrooms that we get from morels to chanterelles. Cooking with rainier cherries and the wide variety of apples from the surrounding areas, it’s hard not to be inspired by the fresh produce. My favorite vendor would be Adams Mushrooms in the Tacoma/Puyallup area. They always have seasonal fungi and can be found at the local farmers markets.
Q. What is the weirdest thing you ever cooked? Was it good? A. The weirdest and most interesting thing that I ever cooked was beef liver. This was for a chopped competition at the Taste of Tacoma in 2019. It was one of the many mystery basket ingredients. Along with it I had rhubarb and lentils. It was a weird combo, but I chose to go Moroccan and make a nice "steak'' salad. I thought it came out well having not cooked with beef liver before, and I won the round, so it’s safe to say that it was good.
Q. You won the Chefs Roll Plate Champion 2019 competition. What is the pressure like in these competitions? How do you keep your cool? A. Being an ex-college athlete, I welcomed the competition. Having played competitive sports my whole life, I felt that this moment was years in the making. The pressure is high, of course. Being judged on your food is never easy, but it's a matter of trusting your skill and taste, and giving it your all. I’m able to keep my cool by just having fun and doing what I know best—and that's cooking a damn good meal. Being in a nationally recognized competition did feel a little different at first, but once the first course went out, I knew I belonged and knew I was coming home with the title.
Q. What role did your fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. play in your college days? Did you ever cook for your brothers? A. My fraternity has offered brotherhood and family, and the constant support that I need. When I didn't have a route, they helped me pave a way. When I needed to work on dishes, they would be there to try my food and offer me fellowship. The times when I didn't have a kitchen, they would let me use theirs. When I thought I had no one in my corner, these brothers showed up every single time. My chapter at the University of Washington Seattle, Gamma Eta Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. was always there for me.