Chef Aaron Woo, winner of Cooking Light’s 2013 Trailblazing Chef Award, is no stranger to the outdoors. Before he began his career in cooking, Woo and his wife met working for outdoor gear giant, Patagonia, spending their off days skiing, climbing, hiking, and fishing in Alaska and Wyoming. In recent years, Woo showcased his culinary talents at his much-loved Portland restaurant, Natural Selection, where he became known for coaxing incredible flavors and textures out of common vegetables. We chatted with Woo about how he got into whitewater rafting and the one thing he won’t go on a river trip without…
Meet Aaron Woo, one of OARS’ Go-to Guest Chefs
How did you get involved with OARS?
[My Family and I] were looking to do a commercial trip with a reputable outfitter and OARS has always been on the top of our list as far as the reputation. We did our first trip about 5 years ago and it was like, “Wow! These guys are awesome. They’re super pro, they’ve got their game together.”
So how did you go from OARS guest to featured chef?
My very first rafting trip in college was an overnight on the American River and I was like, “I could come and cook and row a boat some day.” That always stuck with me. It was like gourmet camping—you can bring all your stuff with you. So my wife and I spent two or three summers on trips with OARS and we got to know the guides. These guides advocated for us and said, “Hey, Aaron’s got this restaurant, he’s actually the real deal and he knows how to do this outside.” Not all chefs can cook outside of their kitchens, but I’m comfortable doing that, so after a couple years I did the wine tasting trip in Hells Canyon.
Why keep coming back to the river? What do you like about cooking on the river?
I’ve always enjoyed water. The thing about rafting that really just does it for me is that you can get into the backcountry wilderness, car-camping style. It’s unique because you leave the roads behind. Anywhere else, to bring all the stuff you need to make a gourmet meal happen, you’re still kind of near roads but once you launch on the river, the only other time you see people is when you pass their camps. It’s an easy way to get deep into the wilderness.
What is your favorite river meal?
My two favorite ones are barbecue brisket and bouillabaisse (a French fish stew that is notoriously difficult to make). I’ve done it the last few trips and I’ve figured out how to make it super easy. At home I can make bouillabaisse in like thirty minutes, but on the river I’ve figured out how to do it so that it’s easy on me and most of the guides, and it’s pretty amazing. And then I love brisket. I’ll smoke the brisket at home and then vacuum-pack it and bring it on the river and it’s like butter.
You’re known for your Portland restaurant, Natural Selection, and doing really adventurous things with food. How do you adapt that style to the river?
That’s not so hard for me. I was an outdoors-person before I was a chef. My wife and I would camp, hike, bike, ski and climb before I even figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up. I take cooking further than some people because I love it. I love cooking on river trips because I think, it’s great to be out here, but if we could be out here and have really awesome food too, why not take it to that level? When you work with a group of people who are really well organized and have their game together, you can pull this off week after week.
What’s one thing you wouldn’t go on a river trip without?
One of the things that I’ve become very attached to on the river, whether I’m a client or a chef, is cocktails. I always bring an appetizer cocktail for each night on the river. The guides get really nervous when I show up with a box and ask if they have extra room, and they go well, I don’t know, what’s in the box? And then I tell them I have cocktails for every night on the trip; suddenly there’s plenty of room. I love doing that because it’s unexpected, it’s just like having gourmet food. People are like, “Whoa! We get this rad cocktail on the river? I was just expecting a beer or a glass of wine.”