Photo courtesy of Russell Lowell Restaurants & Catering
It’s all about the elk. Russell Lowell likes to cook them and serve them with garlic mashed potatoes. His seasonal “restaurant” is a cozy canvas tent in a forest glade near Anacortes, Washington, and the table is set with white linens, fine china and flickering candles. Inside is a full bar. Outside is a blazing fire pit. And nearby there’s an impromptu kitchen where the elk meat, which tastes like a cross between beef and venison, is pan-seared.
People like to pay a lot for this wild-game winter dining adventure. And Lowell, a renowned Seattle-area chef, likes to earmark the proceeds for cancer research. Since his first “Elk Camp” in 1994, Lowell has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Lowell’s fervor for fundraising is no secret. He’s not what you’d call subtle. Diners at his two Seattle-area restaurants, Russell’s and The Garden Cafe at Molbak’s, are accustomed to his pitch. “They come to my restaurant and have a glass of wine, and the people who know me say, ‘Oh, he’s going to talk about giving money, for sure,’” he said.
For Lowell, the calculation is clear. “They have the money, they have the resources, they should give to the Hutch,” he said.
Lowell’s experience with cancer is personal. His grandmother died of breast cancer when he was 9 years old. His cousin was diagnosed with colon cancer at age 22. And his mother survived breast cancer only to succumb to bladder cancer.
Wondering what he, as a chef, could do to help advance knowledge about the disease, Lowell decided the key was in helping fund research. Sometimes, that means Elk Camp or private dinners; sometimes it means making life fun for researchers. “When my mom got cancer, I held a cooking class for the researchers to get them motivated,” Lowell said. “I figured if they’re all pumped up, they’ll work harder. We started calling it Kitchen Lab.”
For years, Lowell has served on the advisory board for Fred Hutch’s annual Premier Chefs Dinner, a four-course, $250-a-plate extravaganza prepared by the Northwest’s top chefs. This year’s event was held May 18. Since the inaugural dinner more than 20 years ago, the evening and auction have raised over $5 million to support research at Fred Hutch.
Photo courtesy getdigitalmedia.com
Lowell’s affinity for cooking began when he was 15 and started working in the kitchen of a French restaurant in San Diego, where he grew up. There he learned the rigors of French cuisine, precision cooking he’s carried over to Russell’s.
Over the years, he’s worked at restaurants on the East Coast and in Hawaii, cooked for heads of state and heads of large companies, and catered for what he calls the “glitterati of Seattle.”
One account he reminisces about is Gerard Schwarz, who served as music director of the Seattle Symphony for more than 25 years. Lowell cooked for Schwarz and many visiting musicians, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman.
He’s also prepared meals for Elton John, Nelson Mandela and Martha Stewart. “She loved my food,” Lowell said.
Lowell isn’t running Elk Camp this winter. Instead, he donated dinner for 20 at an elegant stone mansion in Woodway, Washington — an event that was auctioned off at the Premier Chefs Dinner. Moreover, he’s committed to keep raising funds and awareness on behalf of Fred Hutch. “I’m going to keep doing this, keep asking for money,” Lowell said. "I’m in."