Jon Rowley (1943-2017): A life in quest of the "Beautiful Taste"

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Rowley at competition.JPG

Jon Rowley, the Seattle-based consultant to the American food industry who introduced much of the country to the pleasures of eating fresh-caught Alaska salmon, slurping half-shell oysters and biting into succulent peaches, passed away last night at his home on Vashon Island outside Seattle. His death, due to kidney failure, was announced by his daughters Megan and Caitlin.

Jon was born in 1943 in Warrenton, Ore., at the mouth of the Columbia River, and grew up essentially fending for himself, learning how to catch and cook the seafood and shellfish he found in Columbia's coastal tide pools.

He attended Reed College in Portland but left before graduating in order to become a commercial fisherman in Alaska. Disappointed by the quality of the salmon reaching Seattle, Rowley became a consultant to the fishermen of Cordova, Alaska, who wanted to promote their catch of salmon at the mouth of the Copper River. He persuaded them to bleed the fish at sea in order to preserve their freshness and then took them personally to the airport for a commercial flight to Seattle.

Wayne Ludvigsen, then the chef at Ray's Boathouse, a Seattle restaurant, recalls that he had never seen anything like the bright persimmon of the Copper River fish. That was in 1983. (At the time, most of the salmon served in Seattle restaurants came from the Columbia River.) Today, the short Copper River season is an eagerly awaited event in Seattle, and the price of the onetime trash fish approaches $20 a pound at retail.

Rowley also worked for Taylor Shellfish, the country's largest supplier of oysters. For two decades he managed a program called the West Coast Oyster Wine competition, designed to identify specific wines that paired "beautifully" with oysters. He even adopted the Twitter handle @oysterwine.

Seattle chef Kevin Davis, who first heard of Rowley when he worked at Commander's Palace in New Orleans, called him a modern day Brillat-Savarin, a true connoisseur of taste. "He has influenced the culinary world in more ways than we will ever know," Davis said.

Although Jon was known primarily as a consultant to the seafood industry, he also worked for the Metropolitan Market chain of groceries in Seattle, helping them find juicier peaches and sweeter strawberries. He carried a refractometer with him wherever he went, the way many people carry a pen or pencil, so he could measure the sugar content of the fruit he would encounter.

His objective was always to find the "best" taste, much as the Japanese describe the "umami" of foods: the beautiful taste. With the oyster wines, for example, he encouraged the tasting panels to consider the "bliss factor" of the shellfish and wine pairing.

In the course of his career, Rowley received several prestigious awards, including a Who's Who in America award (30 years ago!) from the James Beard Foundation. He was named one of America's 100 taste-makers by Saveur magazine. (His wife at the time, the noted pie-baker Kate McDermott, was also on the list that year; the story of their courtship ― he brought her flowers: 10,000 composting roses ― is especially poignant, since they have since separated).

Rowley received the inaugural Angelo Pellegrino award, given in honor of the trailblazing food writer whose Lean Years, Happy Years jump-started the local food movement in Seattle. He was featured in a book titled Food Heroes; his photo hangs in the Honor Roll at Shaw's Crab House in Chicago. In my book, Forking Seattle, I called Rowley our secret weapon.

A commenter on the Ray's post wrote: "How many hearts have been warmed by his smile. That man feeds us, belly and soul."

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This page contains a single entry by Cornichon published on October 4, 2017 10:00 PM.

Open Table's Italian Top Ten was the previous entry in this blog.

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