Culinary evangelist Jon Rowley introduced countless diners to Copper River salmon, Walla Walla onions, Shuksan strawberries, matsutake mushrooms and more. He died Oct. 4, 2017, and in this obituary, he's remembered by chefs Shiro Kashiba (Sushi Kashiba), Tamara Murphy (Terra Plata) and Wayne Ludvigsen (formerly of Ray's Boathouse), and food writer Ruth Reichl.
Jon Rowley, Seattle’s tenacious tastemaker, Copper River salmon’s stalwart supporter, champion of the Olympia oyster and promoter of the sweetest peaches imaginable, died Wednesday, Oct. 4, at his home on Vashon Island, surrounded by loved ones. He was 74.
As an influential marketer and restaurant consultant, Mr. Rowley helped make and shape Seattle’s reputation as a food destination while earning his own reputation as a culinary evangelist nationwide.
He was a teacher and a preacher, a character and connector, a slow talker and a deep thinker. His calling card? A basket of matsutake mushrooms, a bag of Mediterranean mussels, a flat of Shuksan strawberries — all certain to blow your mind.
“He’s like a food astronaut: He goes where no one else has been,” said Terry Halverson, chairman of Metropolitan Market, where Mr. Rowley consulted for years. “He finds products that are commonplace and uses his talent to make them into something better.”
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As word spread of his death from kidney failure, it seemed there wasn’t a diner in Seattle who hadn’t been touched by his quest for culinary perfection.
Renowned sushi chef Shiro Kashiba, famed for being the first decades back to use geoduck, razor clams and ocean smelt in Northwest sushi, said, “Jon introduced them to me.”
Then there were the gifts — berries, mushrooms, maybe chicken from a favored farmer — that he regularly brought to chefs like Tamara Murphy, owner of Terra Plata on Capitol Hill. “I felt honored, like he was entrusting me with these treasures,” she said. Whether from land or sea, fished, farmed or foraged, when it came to local riches, “It was always, ‘Look at this! How beautiful is this?’ He could not contain his passion and excitement.”
When Murphy opened her first restaurant, Brasa, in 1999, Mr. Rowley presented her with another gift, one he’s justly famous for: a refractometer, used to measure the brix — or sugar content — of fruits and vegetables.
“I assure you,” she laughs. “The farmers at the farmers markets were terrified when he walked around with that thing.” Murphy still uses the one he gave her, as do other chefs and growers who received them as gifts. Mr. Rowley’s own is now immortalized in the collection of Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry.
Mr. Rowley regularly shipped gifts of shellfish and salmon to his friend Julia Child, who ordained him “The Fish Missionary” (and once, on a visit to Seattle, made him stop at a McDonald’s to fetch her a bag of French fries). Child introduced the Fish Missionary to her friend Ruth Reichl, then food editor of the Los Angeles Times. Reichl later invited him to visit her in L.A. Who better to offer her staff a lesson in selecting and buying fresh fish, asks Reichl.
“He was quality control to the world.”
Reichl thought they would meet at a local supermarket where Mr. Rowley might do an hourlong show-and-tell. “By five o’clock, we’d been to five supermarkets, and he’s still talking passionately,” refusing to stop, dragging her crew of eight to a Chinese market to buy catfish in varying stages of rigor mortis, then back to their test-kitchen to cook it — and taste the difference.
“I learned more in that day about fish than I’ve ever learned. And I’ve never forgotten any of it.”
Sam Danon, one of Mr. Rowley’s professors at Portland’s Reed College, recalled, “Seeing Jon hold a piece of fruit, with so much respect and admiration, you had the impression that he was holding the Holy Grail, for Jon sought and saw perfection in all living things. I’ll miss Jon very much, as will so many others who knew him, both as a most kind and faithful friend, and professionally, as a pioneer, full of respect for the gifts of earth and sea.”
As a child, Mr. Rowley hatched plans for his future while reading Mark Twain’s accounts of Huck Finn’s adventures on the Mississippi: “When I grow up, I’m going to be a fisherman.”
The dream was spurred on by the fishermen who populated the docks near his home in Warrenton, Oregon, offloading their catch while telling fish tales and sea stories.
He started young, pulling yellow perch from a slough with a simple pole and reel. As a teen, he plied his services as a deckhand: “I’d offer to clean people’s fish for a quarter apiece.” He made his own way to Europe and began a lifelong obsession with oysters after reading Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.” The day before Mr. Rowley died, he was still reading and considering his favorite passage, the one that ends “as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
Mr. Rowley took his formal education at Reed — he studied French — and took his informal studies at the school of hard knocks, then parlayed that into a yearslong fishing career. In 1979 he landed in Seattle, at a point when quality seafood was an oxymoron here. It didn’t take long until he began to right that wrong, first teaming up with restaurateur Robert Rosellini and using his close ties to Alaska fishermen to change the way Seattle bought and sold seafood.
Wayne Ludvigsen was the top toque at Ray’s Boathouse when Mr. Rowley showed up at the back door with some yelloweye rockfish, “really high-quality stuff,” Ludvigsen recalled. Soon he was showing up with more, including Copper River king salmon, hook-and-line caught, properly bled, gutted and iced, then flown to Seattle — 48 hours from capture to table.
The hoopla surrounding the Copper River run each year remains Mr. Rowley’s best-known caper. At home on Tuesday, sipping tea with his daughter Megan, it wasn’t at the top of his own list of accomplishments. In his own feast of contributions, it turned out, no one dish stood out: “I’ve had so much fun in various projects, they were so interesting,” he said. He gets “pegged” for the Copper River, but what about the Walla Walla onions, the peaches, the pears, the Shuksan strawberries and all the rest?
“You put this in your mouth and you say, ‘Oh God, I don’t want this to end.’ ”
A memorial is planned; details are pending.
Mr. Rowley is survived by his daughters Megan (Seattle) and Caitlin (Palm Beach Gardens, Florida), grandson Dylan Gordon (Palm Beach, Florida), brother Gary Raymond, nephews Kai and Tyone Raymond (all Vashon Island) and a world of admirers who will think of him every time they slurp an oyster.