Last December, Stevie Wonder came to Seattle's KeyArena to perform his legendary double album Songs in the Key of Life. I stopped going to church a long time ago, but the show felt something like that: thousands of people singing Wonder's revelatory songs about love, unity, and justice, in unison. It was life affirming.
For local chef Makini Howell, who operates four vegan businesses under the umbrella name of Plum Restaurants, Wonder's appearance in Seattle was actually life changing. Before he left town, Wonder, who has been vegan for several years, had lunch at Howell's Capitol Hill restaurant, Plum Bistro.
"Black SUVs pulled up outside of the building, and out walked the man himself," recalls Howell. "He said he was hungry, so I just made him a little bit of everything." After the meal, Wonder asked Howell to sit down with him. She was palpably nervous.
"He said, 'Makini, girl, look at me when I'm talking to you.' He loves saying that to people," Howell says, laughing. Wonder thanked her for the meal and then left. She figured that was the end of it.
A couple of months later, though, Wonder invited Howell to fly to California, where he interviewed her and asked her to be his personal chef for the remainder of his tour. Howell remembers Wonder telling her, "You are young and black and have talent. We should support each other." He also told her that the next leg of the tour would have her on the road for 45 days—and that she had three days to be ready.
In addition to Plum Bistro, Howell also owns Plum Burgers, a food truck; Plum Pantry, a quick-service restaurant in Seattle Center; and Sugar Plum, a sweets shop on Capitol Hill. Leaving town for so long, she realized, would affect her businesses. But she never considered not doing it.
"Oh, hell no," she says. "It's Stevie Wonder."
And so, for the better part of the last eight months, Howell was on the road traveling with a musician she grew up adoring. Every day she cooked his meals in hotel kitchens and venues across the country. When I talked to her last month, she was in Oklahoma City, about to make a portobello mushroom Caesar salad, lentil soup, and a fruit smoothie for Wonder's lunch. She also planned to make him a brownie for dessert, as well as some popcorn for a snack on the tour bus.
"Stevie Wonder is definitely a breakfast-lunch-dinner-dessert-and-treat man," says Howell. "He's like, 'Give it all to me.'" While Wonder craves her sweets, he hasn't been as big a fan of other items she's made for him. "I pickled some watermelon radishes and served them to him once," she recalls. "And he was like, 'Makini, please don't do that again.'"
Howell says that working for Wonder is "kind of like working for the Buddha. He's kind and he's patient. He cares about genuineness, love, and music—and spreading what he truly feels." When recalling the watermelon-radish incident, Howell says, "He never demeans a person. He just gives gentle, clear direction."
The day-to-day working life on tour, though, was grueling. Shows ran late, and when there was a 5 a.m. wake-up call the next morning, breakfast had to be ready well before that so the whole entourage could leave on schedule. Some nights she didn't sleep. "I'm definitely not trying to be a touring celebrity chef," Howell says. "I just like working for him."
While Howell has enjoyed some definite perks that come with working with a legendary and beloved musician (she puts meeting Oprah Winfrey high on that list), the opportunity also created real problems for her business.
A month after Howell left town for tour, four of her employees—including Plum Bistro's pastry chef and accountant—gave their notice. According to Howell, some said they resented working behind the scenes while she received credit, without even being around. "That was really hard," she says.
Additionally, being absent from the business crippled her ability to open Sugarplum, a sweet shop serving vegan soft-serve ice cream, sundaes, floats, milkshakes, cookies, cakes, and pies. Howell had funded the business by securing 166 investors via a Community Sourced Capital campaign, and she knew they were expecting her to deliver on her business plan.
Sugarplum was scheduled to open in May, but because she wasn't around, she had to keep pushing back the opening date. While restaurant opening dates are notoriously flexible, Howell had signed a confidentiality agreement with Wonder's management, so she couldn't tell anyone the real reason for the long delay. "I looked like a fuckup," Howell says. "It was frustrating. It looked like I was slipping, but I was actually touring and working."
Sugarplum finally opened its doors at the end of September, missing months of what Howell had hoped would be strong sales during one of Seattle's hottest summers. Instead, in the cold weather, it's gotten off to a slow start. Now that she's home, she's focusing her attention on the dessert shop. "It's too good a concept to let it slip any more," she says. She adds that Wonder, who came to Sugarplum's grand opening, loves the soft-serve.
Despite the staffing changes at Plum, Howell says her current team—including Maria Torres, who, along with her husband, Ramon, has worked for Howell for almost 10 years, as well as the longtime crew that runs the Plum Burgers truck—is strong. "The reason I've been able to do all this," she says, "is because of them."
Being so close to Wonder—someone who, at 65 years old, can fill 20,000-seat arenas with people who know all the words to songs he wrote more than 40 years ago—has taught Howell that "to be relevant, no matter after so many years, it's all about being dedicated, practiced, and hardworking."
The warmth she saw Wonder give and receive over the last few months has also left her pondering many things. "Do I have enough time left in my life to matter [so much] to people? I'm sure as hell going to keep trying."