The whitewaters of the Middle Fork provide adventurers with adrenaline-pumping thrills, but once on quieter shores, three local outfitters treat guests to the art of fine dining in the wilds of Idaho.By Jason Kauffman.
Once rafts are beached, the carefully strapped-in coolers are released and up goes the open-air kitchen. Then, in a perfectly orchestrated melange of activity, river guides become gourmet chefs, preparing the evening meal as guests soak up the last fading rays of daylight. Once the fleeting sun has fallen behind nearby high timbered ridges and the coolness of the night air settles in, waves of tempting aromas float in every direction.
In river terms, meals are the icing on the cake or the sprig of rosemary that completes the lemon-buttered grilled salmon. A perfectly prepared meal completes a perfect day on the river. Perhaps no one knows this principle better than the professional wilderness river outfitters that ply rivers like the Middle Fork, heralding riverine environments to their guests.
The Wood River Valley is no stranger to top-notch wilderness river outfitters. Three locally based river companies—Middle Fork Wilderness Outfitters, Far and Away Adventures and Middle Fork River Tours—call the Middle Fork of the Salmon their home waters. These outfitters have taken fine dining on weeklong-or-more river tours to new heights. Gone is the standard chuckwagon fare; in is five-star cuisine worthy of the finest of restaurants.
“Food should match the grandeur of the river landscape,” said Anne Marie Gardner of Middle Fork Wilderness Outfitters in Ketchum. “We want our trip to be as spectacular as the scenery.” That includes the food prepared for clients, from breakfast to dinner. “I always joke that it’s a floating five-star resort vacation.”
Of course, not everyone’s idea of fine cuisine is the same. River trips draw all kinds, from the guy who likes his meat and potatoes to his wife who only desires a salad. “It’s a blend. It makes everybody happy,” said Gardner.
Proper packing is key to pulling out that fresh piece of fruit five days into the trip. Being able to do so requires knowledge of how much ice to pack in which coolers. Place too little ice in one cooler and the frozen dessert melts; add too much in another cooler and the last night’s filet mignon is as hard as a river boulder. “We have fresh fruit and vegetables the whole way. That’s something that flabbergasts people,” Gardner added.
Still, being so far from civilization and weathering frequently unpredictable conditions means things don’t always go as planned. A case in point: For a brief period the guides with Middle Fork Wilderness Outfitters experimented with bringing portabella mushrooms on river trips. In the end, the constant bruising and other difficulties caused them to abandon that effort altogether. Experimenting with recipes and menus is key to providing consistent knock-your-wool-socks-off fare for a clientele that is often 60 percent repeat or word-of-mouth business. “I’m constantly amazed; we’re constantly improving,” Gardner said.
In the case of Far and Away Adventures in Ketchum, always looking for improvements means taking the fine cuisine they produce on the river to a whole new level. For the 2005 rafting season, the company did something few if any other rafting companies can claim: They switched to an entirely organic menu. From the hoisin barbecue pork loin with pan-fried noodles and baby bok choy on day two, to the braised free-range chicken with fennel puree and blackberry compote on day four, everything is organic down to the barest ingredient. Keep in mind that for Far and Away these examples are just the third course of a night’s standard three-course meal.
Introducing guests to the benefits of going organic has a way of changing their lives, said Steve Lentz, co-owner of Far and Away Adventures with his wife, Annie Lentz. “By the end of the week, people are going, ‘Wow, I feel great.’ They recognize a higher energy level.” The Lentzes design their day-to-day menus around particular regions throughout the world. “Right down to the pairing of the wines,” he said. The driving force behind Far and Away’s organic transformation has been Kenny Rudolf, who owns Organic Catering in Hailey and has been recognized by the prestigious James Beard Foundation of New York City. Employing Rudolf’s expertise has opened numerous culinary opportunities, said Lentz. “We put no boundaries on the food. You complement that with the sound of the river going by and it’s fantastic.”
Going organic does have its challenges, however. Most importantly, fresh food often has to be flown in from distant locations. Wild salmon—an important staple in Far and Away’s river pantry—is flown in fresh from Seattle’s Pike Place Market near the docks on Puget Sound the day before each trip. “We have it flown over fresh. It makes a huge difference.”
Guests of Middle Fork River Tours in Hailey often write owners Kurt and Gayle Selisch afterwards to thank them for their wonderful trip. “And they all mention the food,” Kurt Selisch said. “They’re pretty much astounded.” Selisch’s 24 years of river guiding experience have allowed him to perfect the art of Dutch-oven cooking. However, the fine dining experience their guests are treated to is due to his wife’s culinary expertise. “Gayle is an excellent cook. She’s really creative. She experiments with the company’s menu from year to year to keep up with the food trends,” said Selisch.
Because the last place to begin experimenting with menus is on the river where expectant guests are waiting, the Selischs always test new meals at home. One inspired culinary creation the couple experimented with was seafood lasagna. Delicious as it was, the length of time it took to cook in the Dutch ovens meant it was a no-go for the company’s riverside menu. “We just couldn’t get it to cook out there!” One recipe that did work out well, much to the delight of guests, is a specialty deep-dish Dutch-oven pizza. “Once guests realize what’s cooking, they’ll exclaim, ‘We’re having pizza? You’ve got to be kidding.’”
In addition to setting a high culinary standard, the guides also understand the importance of presentation. For these companies, the perfect juxtaposition of white linen, fine china and silverware complements the adjacent pristine river scenery.