John Sowa has introduced the authentic flavors of New Orleans to many cities. Astoria will be his last.
Sowa’s restaurant and bar, Sweet Basil’s Cafe, was a beloved spot in Cannon Beach before it became another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic after it closed in May.
Now, Sowa is making his mark at Astoria’s Silver Salmon Grille with his longtime friend, chef Jeff Martin. He brings 40 years of experience as a chef and his vibrant Cajun menu to the restaurant.
“We ate at each other’s places back then. He would come have Cajun food and I’d come up here and have seafood,” Sowa said.
The duo reopened Silver Salmon in June with Sowa’s Cajun and part of Martin’s seafood menu.
Learning from the pros
Sowa learned how to cook authentic Creole and Cajun dishes from well-known New Orleans chefs Paul Prudhomme and Peter Lutzen.
“I’m a hands-on kinda guy. I just enjoyed being in the kitchen learning from the old pros. The old Italians; the old Cajuns,” Sowa said. “I fell in love with Cajun cooking. It was just so unusual to me ... As a kid coming from Brooklyn, New York, the food was so unusual and the people were so friendly. The whole scene just came together.”
In the early 90s, Sowa opened a restaurant in Long Island that specialized in Cajun and Creole food, where Lutzen later joined him.
“It became a scene on Long Island. We had all the old beatniks coming out, and we’d have to close the place down because they wouldn’t leave,” Sowa said.
Sowa eventually sold his Long Island restaurant and decided he’d had enough of the East Coast’s fast-paced, brisk life.
“I just got burnt out. New York just burnt me out,” Sowa said. “So, in ‘99 we just made a leap of faith to go west.”
Sowa and his wife, Deb, moved to Seaside, where she grew up. They bought the building of an old pizza place that had closed on Holladay Drive. The couple turned the space into a Cajun restaurant.
A new scene
Sowa slowly introduced the life and flavor of Louisiana to Seaside.
He even brought performers from Louisiana and Chicago.
“When you go to New Orleans there’s like three things you do: food, music and fun,” Sowa said. “So I tried to bring that atmosphere into Seaside, and it took a while.”
In 2007, Sowa attempted to downsize and move to Cannon Beach, where he opened Sweet Basil’s. Three months in, he felt like he was missing out on something.
“We were realizing people were missing the Cajun food from Seaside, so little by little we introduced the whole night scene again,” Sowa said. “It became the in-thing on a Friday night. We were untouchable.”
Everyone who visited Sweet Basil’s would dance along to the late Maggie Kitson’s band, Maggie and the Katz, Sowa said.
He misses greeting each customer.
“I miss the people,” Sowa said.
The last hoorah
“There’s something different between becoming a chef and cooking. There’s a big difference,” Sowa said. “If you want to become a chef you have to continuously learn.”
At the Silver Salmon, Sowa uses his Cajun influence to transform local seafood into a new flavor for Astoria.
“With Creole and Cajun cooking, it allowed me to use a lot of the produce and a lot of the natural fish here on the West Coast,” Sowa said. “We try to buy as much as we can locally.”
People like the Louisiana flavor because it’s something they’ve never had before, Sowa said.
If he isn’t buying local, Sowa buys straight from Louisiana. He buys sausage, ham and crawfish tail meat to make one of his favorite dishes, crawfish etouffee.
“There’s nothing that could surpass it, it’s the best in the world,” Sowa said about Louisiana’s meat.
Sowa said after 40 years of being a chef, he never feels like he’s going to work. Rather, he’s just doing something he loves.
“If I didn’t really enjoy it, I wouldn’t be here,” Sowa said. “This is going to be the last hoorah.”