Summer of 1975 and Wayne Ludvigsen, with one more year of high school to go, finds a summer job packing herring on the dock at Ray’s Boathouse. The following year he moved inside, washing dishes and busing tables. Ray’s, with fishermen lined up to supply their prize catch, was Seattle’s premier seafood restaurant, and Ludvigsen proved a natural in the kitchen. Within three years he was in charge. When Jon Rowley brought in the first-ever Copper River Kings to Seattle, he took one to show Ludvigsen. “It was fat, not slender, and had a unique color, persimmon,” he recalls. “We’d never seen anything like it.. Our hands would be covered with orange fish oil.” The fashion was to poach salmon, or to barbecue it, or to bake it; Ludvigsen’s approach was minimalist: grill it with a bit of herb butter until it just lost its transluscency, then serve. Ideally, according to wine steward Jeff Prather, with one of them newfangled wines called pinot noir.
Salmon wasn’t the only thing, though. There was also black cod, also called Alaskan sablefish. Shiro Kashiba was marinating it in lees from the sake-brewing process at his restaurant, Nikko, in the International District; Ludvigsen tweaked the recipe to American tastes (by making it less alcoholic), curing it in lees and sugar for at least 24 hours, then broiling it to caramelize the sugar. Not all that complicated, but easy to screw up.
In 1997, Ludvigsen left Ray’s but stayed in the industry as director of national accounts for Charlie’s Produce. A chef selling to chefs, in other words. Charlie’s, which provides produce to restaurants, groceries, the maritime industry, institutions, and even other wholesalers, is owned by Ray Bowen, Charlie Billow and Terry Bagley under the corporate umbrella Triple-B Corp. It’s the largest grocery wholesaler on the west coast with four distribution centers. In Seattle alone, there’s a sprawling warehouse complex in the Sodo district and a fleet of over 200 trucks that deliver everything from kale to carnations. From the outset, over 30 years ago, Charlie’s has worked directly with a network of local and regional farmers to help them plan crops and guarantee them a market; in turn, their customers (independent groceries and restaurants) have a reliable supply of locally produced items.
Ray’s most recently has partnered with Long Live the Kings to help restore salmon runs.
Back to the black cod for a moment. It’s actually a very traditional Japanese dish, kasu being the lees of sake. And zuke meaning “to apply.” Sablefish is also prized for its high fat content, and in New York delis it’s very popular smoked, like salmon. These days, it’s the most famous dish on the menu at Nobu, in Manhattan, but it was Wayne Ludvigsen, in the wilds of Ballard, who gave it life in America.