He’d Bring a Whole Pig Down the River if We Let Him…
Chef Neil Clooney, from Ashland, OR’s meat-centric Smithfields, brings “Iron Chef” cred to OARS’ gourmet river trips
He got his start on a boat—the prestigious luxury liner QE2—and now we’re lucky enough to have Chef Neil Clooney join us on our boats as an annual fixture for OARS’ gourmet river trips. A two-time “Oregon Iron Chef” winner and English ex pat, Clooney now calls Ashland home. There he owns Smithfields Restaurant and Bar (or Smiths as he affectionately calls it), a meat-centric restaurant that has been named one of the best farm-to-table restaurants in the Pacific Northwest by Conde Nast Traveler. We chatted with Clooney shortly before a Rogue River wine tasting trip to find out more about his food and what he’s learned about bringing restaurant-quality meals to the river…
So what’s your philosophy behind Smiths?
It’s nose-to-tail, sustainable dining. We try to use as much of the animal as possible. I call the restaurant meat-centric because we use pretty much every standard animal—rabbit, duck, chicken, pig, cow, lamb—utilizing as much of the animal as we can from the snout to the tail from the hoof to the decent cuts of meat. There are only a couple of vegetarian options. The rest is all meat.
You’ve become one of OARS’ go-to chefs for its gourmet river trips. Were you hesitant to leave the comforts of your kitchen to cook restaurant-quality meals on the river?
The first time I definitely was. And I tried to do too much. The more trips I’ve done the smarter I’ve gotten with them. In my mind it’s all about getting everything done in the comfort of your own kitchen so when you get to the river you can socialize with the guests, hang out, have fun and put in a little showmanship.
So what’s something you did on your first trip that you learned from?
I tried making fresh pasta and drying it over the paddle oars. Now I write menus where things are braised and all I have to do is heat it up. It’s cooked for hours in the kitchen but it takes like a half hour to heat up on the river.
Your focus at your restaurant is largely farm-to-table. How does that translate to your menus on the river?
Super easy – especially when you’re doing the Rogue River rafting trip because you can say, “This piece of beef came from 30 miles away.” Or, “This produce was delivered fresh to my restaurant from the Applegate.” People get really impressed by that.
Do you have a good stand-by dish for river trips? Something you know will turn out perfectly despite cooking in the outdoors?
The first meal is always the best meal because it gets everyone on the right foot. I usually do like a braised lamb osso buco with some risotto and mint remoulade. We’ll pair that with a nice big red wine like a bold Cabernet or Syrah. And then from there, every other night, the expectation increases a bit and you can do different stuff. But it’s always good to get people excited with that first meal so they’re like, “Wow, this is a gourmet food trip.”
What’s the best meal you’ve prepared on the river?
It was on a beer trip with Southern Oregon Brewing. I did burgers that were really, really good. They were beef burgers but cooked in pork fat in big cast irons. Just burgers and fries, but people loved it. .
If you had to pick one: Beer trip or wine trip?
You know, when I go on the wine trips, I always take beer with me. And when I go on the beer trips, I don’t take any wine with me. So I’ve probably got to say for pure choice of alcohol it would have to be beer trip. But the best trip I’ve done is the Snake River rafting trip and that was a wine trip. That was mainly because of the people and the crew.
What was your best memory from that trip?
There were a lot of funny things that happened on that Snake River trip. On one of the last nights the guides pulled out a big bag of fancy dress clothes and we all got dressed up in things like feather boas, hats, skirts…and there were a lot of guys wearing dresses. It was a pretty fun night.
If you could bring anyone in the world with you on a gourmet river trip, who would it be?
My wife would tell me that it would have to be her. But I don’t know, probably a cool foodie guy like Anthony Bourdain or something like that. It would be entertaining.