Jon Rowley
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Jon Rowley

Greg Atkinson / March 2011

Food Arts presents the March 2011 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Jon Rowley, the enigmatic Seattle-based seafood and produce consultant known as one of the nation's premier tastemakers. Rowley jokes that his business card has no job title, which "allows me to do whatever I want." For his work improving seafood quality and handling, he has been honored with inclusion in the Who's Who of Cooking in America; he was the first recipient of the Angelo Pellegrini Award for contributing to food and dining in the Puget Sound region; and Julia Child dubbed him "The Fish Missionary."

"Jon is passionate, some would say obsessed, and knowledgeable," says Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet, which listed him as a contributing editor on all matters related to seafood.

"Jon's like an oracle," says Rodney Clark, owner of Rodney's Oyster House in Toronto and Vancouver. "If anyone came from the oyster gods to humanity, they'd use Jon as their spokesman. When running with Jon, you realize he doesn't have a second agenda, that he's all about the oyster, the peach, or whatever."

Born in the wistfully remote settlement of Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River, to parents he candidly describes as "a couple of alcoholics," Rowley spent a fairly solitary childhood in Warrenton, Oregon, and Valdez, Alaska, exploring the tide pools and shoals of the fishing towns. After working aboard a purse-seiner in southeast Alaska, Rowley took off for Europe, where he spent three years working in and studying the fishing industry. He eventually bought a fishing boat and headed back to Alaska. There he must have shuddered at the way some of the world's best fish were being handled.

"Most of the Copper River salmon was bound for the canneries, and the fish were thrown into the holds without much thought." At the behest of a Seattle restaurant owner, Rowley persuaded some fishermen to bleed the fish as soon as they were caught, layer them in ice in the flat waxed boxes he had seen in use in Europe, and rush their catch to Seattle to be served fresh. And thus, today's coast-to-coast embrace of Copper River salmon.

As a consultant to restaurants, Rowley has since applied that same level of attention to handling peaches, wine, berries, and even compost. The Kirkland, Washington–based Anthony's Home­port restaurant chain has built an annual festival around a system Rowley developed for providing the restaurants with hours-old local strawberries. And devotees of Frog Hollow Farm Peaches have Rowley to thank for helping Al and Becky Courchesne develop systems to deliver tree-ripened peaches with some of the highest brix counts on record.

"If Americans, like the Japanese, designated people as national treasures," says Reichl, "Jon would definitely be one. We're extremely lucky to have him."