Chef's Specialty: Out of Africa
Some dishes in the Wood River Valley are simply iconic: The Pioneer’s Jim Spud, a Grumpy’s burger, the Christie’s lamb shank. At the Sawtooth Club, it’s the Chicken Senegalese.
For Tom Nickel, owner of Ketchum’s Sawtooth Club and the Roosevelt Grille & Tavern, life in the kitchen has been far from certain. When neighboring Main Street buildings burned to the ground in September, the extensive water and smoke damage shut him down. Nickel took the setback in stride and plans to reopen the Sawtooth for the holiday season.
Nickel became a chef by chance. When the head cook at the Santa Barbara restaurant where he was washing dishes failed to show up, he stepped in. Today, Nickel is one of Ketchum’s most successful and enduring restaurateurs.
His favorite dish is yet another aberration. In 1986, he visited a friend in the Peace Corps in Africa. After a quick detour to raft the Zambezi River, he landed in Senegal. There, he tasted an exotic soup of apples, grapes, chicken and curry.
At first, he was skeptical. He was never a great believer in cooking with fruit. "It did not sound appetizing at the time." To his surprise, in a tiny West African village, taste overwhelmed assumption. "I was impressed." He dubbed it the Senegalese Soup.
Nickel opened the Sawtooth Club in 1987 and described the soup to his chef, hoping an entrée could be composed from memory. For two weeks, Nickel and original Sawtooth chef Tom Sanker tinkered with the flavors. One attempt was too sweet, the next almost inedible. They tried it themselves, they tested it on friends, and one day they nailed it.
"When our guinea pigs were having the ‘Oh my god!’ reaction, we knew we got it right."
Nickel calls the Chicken Senegalese his most unique dish. And while it’s not the highest-selling entrée—not everyone likes curry—Nickel notes that his customers are most loyal to the Senegalese. Many tell him it’s the only dish they have ever ordered, even after two decades. "I want to slap them and say, ‘Try something else!’"
Unlike his patrons, Nickel is apt to try something new. "My eye always stops on the item I have never had before." Travel, with its new rituals and conventions, has shaped him.
"I don’t think there is an exact science to cooking or an art to a dish. I like to cook because I like to try different things, and I find that the gathering of friends is best around food. That’s what I enjoy most."
• chicken breasts lightly floured
Curry makes for a difficult wine match. Add heavy cream, sherry and apple to the mix and you might be tempted to just crack open a beer. Nothing wrong with that, but this rich Western take on simple West African flavors deserves something a bit more upscale. If you do resort to brew, I’d suggest a hearty brown—rich enough to stand up to this chicken without overwhelming it.
But when wine calls become difficult, don’t despair.
The classic combo for most exotic-spiced cuisine is Gewürztraminer, an opulent, aromatic and full-bodied white with unmistakable spice components. It’s that spiciness, along with light, sweet fruit and good acidity on the finish that make it the logical choice for curry.
Red wine makes for a tougher match—the sweet cream and curry would definitely clash with anything that has too much bite. I’d go for the soft fruit and light tannins of a good Beaujolais, which is an always versatile table option.
Champagne is an oft-overlooked table wine. Too often reserved for celebrations, sparkling wines are among the most versatile available. For the Chicken Senegalese, try a rosé for its richer fruit and body.
Any of the above pair not only with the featured recipe, but are also reliable choices for many holiday meals. While turkey is basically wine-neutral, the wide array of flavors at Thanksgiving or Christmas—everything from tart cranberries to spicy, sweet pumpkin pie—call for versatile vintages. Gewürztraminer as well as Riesling, Beaujolais or Pinot Noir, and most any sparkling wine have the versatility to make a happy home at your holiday table.
Idaho native David Kirkpatrick has worked in the wine business for 30 years. He lends his expertise to the Boise Co-op Wine Shop and writes Boise Weekly’s Wine Sipper column.