You'd never suspect, looking at Jon Rowley as he lumbers slowly across the tidal flat, that this man, born and raised in a tiny coastal community of the Pacific Northwest, had changed the way America eats.
ON A CRYSTAL-CLEAR morning dawning over Totten Inlet at the southern tip of Puget Sound, Jon Rowley walks an oyster bed with Bill Taylor of Taylor Shellfish Farms. Rowley stoops, picks up a Virginica from the slate gray muck and shucks it.
“My nomination for one of the best oysters on the planet,” he declares. “Not plump enough, but they’re coming along. Everything that grows in this bay is just fat — plump, sweet and perky.”
Taylor, whose family has been cultivating oysters in these parts since the 1890s, lifts two buoys and a series of net bags from the foot of a dike built generations ago when Olympia oysters were grown in terraced tide pools here. The buoys and bags are an intriguing new oyster-growing system that Taylor’s 85-year-old father had stumbled upon.”You’re witnessing a moment in history,” Rowley says, “that could change everything.”
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Rowley’s been doing some version of this for nearly three decades in the unassuming role of “consultant,” talking with fishermen or oystermen or farmers and coming up with fresher fish, better oysters, tastier fruit.
You’d never suspect, looking at him as he lumbers slowly across the tidal flat, that this man, born and raised in a tiny coastal community of the Pacific Northwest, had changed the way America eats. But Rowley has been changing history since he arrived on the Seattle food scene in 1980.
Saveur magazine, the chronicler of authentic cuisines from around the world, recognized his contributions by naming him the “Disciple of Flavor” in its 2008 honor role of 100 favorite people, places and things.
There’s no disputing that Rowley possesses an acute sense of taste, the eater’s version of “perfect pitch,” a quality that dates to his childhood.
But how does the pursuit of flavor become the consuming passion of a lifetime?
JON ROWLEY WAS born in Astoria, once the home of Oregon’s salmon canneries, and raised in Valdez, Alaska, and Warrenton, Ore. But Rowley’s childhood was anything but small-town idyllic.
“I grew up with a couple of alcoholics,” he admits candidly of his parents. “As soon as I was old enough, all I wanted to do was figure out how to get out of the house.”
To escape, he’d just start walking. By the age of 10 he’d take off with nothing but a skillet, a cube of butter, and some salt and pepper. Camping on the beach at the mouth of the Columbia River, he’d walk the tide pools, sauté starry flounder, swim out to shoals to dig for razor clams and trap crab off jetties. A few years later Rowley started working as a deckhand aboard charter boats on the Columbia, and while some teenagers work at a car wash or movie theater to make pocket money, Rowley hit the docks to run a fish-cleaning concession through his high-school years, handling and gutting hundreds of fish.
Not your typical childhood.
Rowley’s “stay-away-from-the-house trips,” as he calls them, took him ever farther afield until, at 19, he absconded from his own high-school graduation, hitchhiked to Seattle, and shipped out on a derelict seine boat from Fisherman’s Terminal.
Back from his “graduation exercise” in Alaska, Rowley headed to Europe. His personal satori occurred while sitting at a brasserie in Paris when he ordered his first platter of oysters. Their flavor was a revelation. He took to lurking around the fish stalls of neighborhood markets, learning the different names the French have for their oysters and the numbering system by which they’re sized. He followed with a pilgrimage to the Belon River estuary in southern Brittany, and continued on the oyster pilgrim’s path to the Charente and Marennes, then trailed the oysters from their beds to Rungis, the sprawling market of Paris where oysters are kept separated from the rest of the fish.
“They’re in their own world out there,” he recalls, much as Rowley seems to exist in his.
He continued his journey to the stands in front of places such as La Coupole and Le Select in Montparnasse to watch and speak with the shuckers, and for the next three years traveled through France, Spain, Portugal and Norway to see how the fisheries worked. When he returned to the States he bummed around the coastal fishing communities of New England, then headed to Portland for a turn at Reed College.
Very slowly, the way an oyster produces a pearl, Jon Rowley was putting together in his mind how to get the perfect fish to market.
Eventually, he dropped out of Reed, bought a small troller and headed north to Alaska. He fished for a decade, taking winters off to travel in Europe. And the same question he had asked himself as a young man kept haunting him: Why did the food in Europe taste so much better than the food back home?
IS THERE A MOMENT in the culinary life of a city when the paradigm shifts? A watershed event that changes everything forever? Probably not. The food traditions and transitions that compose the dietary tapestry of a city undergo their mysterious metamorphoses imperceptibly. What we eat, how we eat, transforms itself before our eyes and in our stomachs before we know what’s happening.
And yet, it’s tempting to try to isolate those seismic events that reshape everything we know or thought we knew.
I’d like to think that event took place in Seattle in 1980 when Rowley, after ordering a piece of lingcod floridly described by his waiter at Rosellini’s 610, a restaurant he had been told served the best fish in town, sent it back to the kitchen untouched. He could smell it before it ever reached the table.
“The waiter had a beautiful story about the fish,” Rowley recalls, “but the fish didn’t measure up.”
Rowley asked to speak to the manager. The evening’s maitre d’ turned out to be the owner, Robert Rosellini, son of fabled Seattle restaurateur Victor Rosellini.
The rest, as they say, is history.
They started their conversation at the 610, then moved to Rosellini père’s legendary Four-10. They ended up at The Other Place, Robert’s showcase restaurant, the conversation lasting until dawn.
Rowley took a risky gamble: He offered to show Rosellini what really fresh fish tasted like.
“I must have made some claims,” he says now, smiling.
Rowley realized that his boasts depended strictly on how fishermen handled the product. Rockfish, black cod, lingcod were the type of fish that typically came to market in the worst shape; junk fish that fetched next to nothing on the market at the time, hauled in by gill-netters and dumped in a boat’s hold.
Rowley asked a few of his friends — all of whom were long-line fishermen — to first bleed the fish and to ice them immediately into the shallow, stackable boxes he had seen fishermen use in Europe.
The upshot came when Rowley showed up several weeks later with samples of inexpensive bottom fish caught on lines and whisked to the kitchen of Rosellini’s Other Place. Rosellini had assembled his entire staff. Rowley presided. The very color of the fish, the sheen of its skin, the clarity of eye, the feel of its flesh — so firm to the touch — all indicators that we take for granted today, seemed an epiphany to the young cooks.
“They looked better in death than they did in life, like a chef had painted an aspic over them,” Rowley wistfully recalls, describing the slime that fish naturally produce in a state of rigor mortis.
Exciting times, but short-lived.
Rowley was bringing in salmon, crab, abalone, spot prawns, and selling directly — illegally — to restaurants. He had to pay his fishermen cash.
“And then you sell to the restaurants, and you know how that is.”
I do, because I owned my own restaurant for 20 years. Restaurants buy on credit, and though you accept a purveyor’s terms of a week or 15 days, under the daily financial pressures of running a restaurant, that can easily stretch itself to 30, 60, even 90 days.
But the demand was too great, and R&R Seafood, the company he and Rosellini had started, couldn’t survive the lag between paying the fishermen and receiving payment from the restaurants.
There seemed but one thing to do: Rowley retooled, and his life as a consultant was born.
ASK ANYONE IN Seattle about Rowley, and the first thing they mention is Copper River salmon. Rowley had met some fishermen from Alaska’s Copper River at Fish Expo in 1982. They had small boats and no refrigeration. They would fish for two or three days, then offload to tenders that took the salmon to coastal canneries where the fish were put on conveyors. Rowley, who considers Copper River king the best salmon in the world, thought this tantamount to criminal activity.
The fishermen complained about poor prices but had no idea how to improve their situation. Rowley realized that if he could persuade them to handle the fish properly on the boat — to bleed, clean and ice the fish in its pristine state — these fishermen might have a brilliant future.
In October over dinner at McCormick’s Fish House they had said, “We can’t do it.” By the following March, they called back: “We think we’d like to give it a try.”
Rowley had them load 300 pounds of Copper River king on Alaska Airlines with the first spring run of the 1983 season. He met the fish in Seattle and took them around to his restaurants.
“It was pretty clear to everybody that something was going on,” he recalls. Wayne Ludvigsen, then chef at Ray’s Boathouse, took his hand and rubbed it on the first Copper River king he had ever seen. His fingers came away covered with red oil.
The customers went crazy.
But Copper River salmon wasn’t the only product Rowley introduced in 1983. He had read about Olympia oysters, the tiny bivalves indigenous to the Olympic Peninsula and the only oyster native to the Pacific Northwest. No one had seen Olympias served on the half shell in recent memory. They all ended up in jars. Once again Rowley went to ground, heading to the peninsula where they were reputed to be grown, and started knocking on doors. He reintroduced Olys at an event at Ray’s, and soon they were everywhere.
“1983,” Rowley recalls with a wry smile, “was a big year.”
WHEN I ASK Jon Rowley if he has a first flavor memory, he pauses a moment, then says, “Berries. Kid food.”
The explanation is simple: As a boy, the pure taste of wild blackberries stained his soul as indelibly as it did his fingers and tongue. In the Saveur piece — which features a picture of a blackberry pie made by his wife, Kate McDermott — Rowley says his grandmother used to make juice from fresh-picked berries, and in it “you could taste and smell the briar.”
Rowley’s passions, it is clear, are not limited to fish and oysters.
So early one Saturday morning we agree to meet at Seattle’s University District Farmers Market.
Rowley ambles down the paths of the market like an old bear prowling for salmon berries. But for the moment, he is looking for peaches. He spots a couple of growers he knows and asks cryptically, “How are they brixing?”
“Thirteen, 14,” one of them replies.
From his pocket, Rowley pulls a small, tube-shaped instrument, a refractometer, and takes a sample from a plate set out for the nibbling public. He squashes the chunk of peach above the surface of his instrument until juice dribbles onto its surface, closes the refractometer and holds it to his eye. He looks for all the world like a sea captain scanning the horizon, but in this case Rowley’s searching for sugar.
The refractometer calculates brix, a measure of sucrose concentration. We’re most familiar with brix as a term applied to viticulture, but sugar confers flavor to every fruit and vegetable.
“Fifteen,” Rowley says, smiling, and hands me the sliver of fruit. I pop it in my mouth, and the flavor explodes on my tongue.
As we make our way through the market, Rowley subjects tomatoes, strawberries, cherries, plums — just about anything that catches his interest — to a quick read on the refractometer.
“They used to call me ‘the Brix Cop,’ but now a lot of the farmers have them. They’re very proud of their brix numbers.” Rowley pauses a moment. “I don’t know why every kitchen doesn’t have one of these things,” he says.
“What’s that?” a curious onlooker asks Rowley as he probes the juice of a slightly underripe tomato.
“It’s a truth machine.”
HOW DO YOU assess the influence of someone who makes no claims for himself, who’s “not a showoff and has never tried to ride all this attention and publicity to his own self-aggrandizement,” as the renowned food editor and writer William Rice puts it.
Clients and colleagues alike attest to the purity of Rowley as a person. “There is almost an innocence about him,” says Sheila Lukins of Silver Palate fame.
In a food world increasingly dominated by shameless self-promoters, Rowley keeps himself aloof — above the small-time pettiness that infects others, and, says Rice with admiration, with his self-respect intact.
Rowley’s name is not a household word, even here where his influence is greatest — and Rowley wouldn’t have it any other way. But talk to fishermen, growers, grocers, restaurateurs or food writers across the country, and it’s immediately apparent that Rowley’s reach is pervasive. It would be easy for a man of his credentials to spread himself thin, but Rowley only takes on the stuff he loves. Even so, he “continues to leave viable footprints on the world,” in Rice’s words.
You’re eating better fish because of Rowley, plumper oysters, riper fruit. And beyond the quality of foodstuffs, coastal estuaries, particularly in the Northwest, are cleaner as a result of his efforts.
“Rowley is known to key people on key committees in Washington,” Rice says. “He’s the real thing. Jon talks about what he knows, and has a sense of integrity and honest curiosity that makes people want to listen to him. They trust what he says.”
He doesn’t say much. Rowley is by nature a solitary character who, despite a web of relationships that tie him to the world, would appear to be far more comfortable by himself, or at the very least in the company of farmers and fishermen.
Call him a “reluctant consultant,” a rare species. Not exactly anti-social nor especially garrulous — no fish tales from Rowley — his silence is legion. He’s been known to sit on a panel at a seminar and remain quiet until the last few minutes when he delivers the zinger of the day, causing everyone present to sit up straight in their chairs.
He carries his authority, and wears his knowledge, lightly. If you’re not a client, he’d just as soon leave you alone, but woe betide the individual or operation that, once having retained Rowley’s services, ignores his advice. Rowley assumes that he’s being paid to deliver the real juice, and he doesn’t mince words. Fishermen, growers, chefs and restaurateurs all have stories of receiving phone calls or e-mails from Rowley informing them that something’s fallen short. He’s a stickler for quality, and nothing escapes his notice.
But at the end of the day, it’s all about flavor. Does something taste better? Can it taste better?
Rowley, says Rice, “has a compassionate sense of what’s happening and what might happen.” He’s always seeking a better way, a purer flavor. You might call Rowley the “truth machine” of the food world if he weren’t so profoundly human.
Now 64, Rowley’s been searching for the truth of flavor since childhood. Whether you’re talking blackberries, strawberries or peaches, oysters, mussels or salmon, Rowley wants to taste the “umami” of the thing — that subtle but basic “fifth taste” that completes the four others: sweet, salty, sour and bitter.
Just as methodical in his approach to the perfect berry or the perfect fish, his search for the deeper meaning of umami took 10 years. He prefers the older, Zen-inspired philosophical-cultural definition to the modern, scientific one. “Taste” and “flavor” blend into “essence” and “deliciousness.” The peak of ripeness, the perfect moment of a product’s perfection, has something to do with it. But beyond any product’s shape, color, aroma and flavor — and our senses of sight, smell and taste that enable us to perceive its perfection — there are elements of reverence, care and respect, even anticipation, that are essential to Rowley’s understanding of umami.
The last of Rowley’s “Umami Principles” reads: “The concept of umami gives us the framework to discuss and understand the ideal, whether we are discussing salmon, strawberries, crab, squash, coffee, tuna, peaches or mushrooms.”
The person of Jon Rowley does much the same for me.
Peter Lewis met Jon Rowley 20 years ago after opening Campagne restaurant on Capitol Hill. Rowley introduced him to Copper River salmon, Mediterranean mussels, and Olympia and Virginica oysters. Since selling Campagne in 2005, Lewis has been traveling and writing, including a wine column for Virtuoso Travel & Life and, most recently, “Blind Tasting,” a murder mystery based on the wine trade.