It’s the best lunch I’ve had in a long time, and I tell the chef. He’s at the oars.
We’re anchored in Scott Nechay’s ClackaCraft along the bank of the Green River south of Pinedale, Wyoming. It’s been a gorgeous August morning, not too hot with a nice breeze and a good amount of cloud cover. The fishing’s been pretty good, and we’ve netted our share of decent browns.
But the lunch. Damn.
“I think it’s really important to have a good meal no matter what you’re doing,” Nechay says. “I don’t think anyone should be serving bad food. Good food just enhances the experience. If you’re having a tough day fishing, who wants to have a shitty lunch? It’s all about putting smiles on people’s faces, and lobster rolls have a tendency to do that.”
A private chef by trade, Nechay guides between 45 and 120 days a year around both Pinedale, WY and Missoula, MT, with most of his trips now combining his two careers. Last night he cooked a late private dinner in Jackson before hauling down 191 to meet me this morning. He began guiding not long after moving from his Illinois stomping grounds to Wyoming back in 2001, but the cooking began long before that.
“My grandmother was always in the kitchen, so at seven-years-old I started making Bolognese with her,” he says.
At age 14, he dove headfirst into cooking professionally when, as a country club busboy, he got promoted to the omelette station for an Easter Sunday brunch of 800 diners. He hasn’t looked back. Early on in his guiding career, though, Nechay viewed his passions for fishing and for food as two distinct endeavors.
“When I was working for an outfitter back in the day, we were given these horrible lunches and it was just so embarrassing,” he says. “When clients found out I was a chef they started saying, why don’t you make the lunches? And it kind of morphed organically that way. I was making lunches for myself and my friends. Why shouldn’t my clients have a good lunch? And then, why don’t you start doing breakfast? Dinner? Ten years later here I am, doing exactly that.”
Nechay’s love of food and fishing is obvious while spending time with him, and it’s also obvious that this love isn’t limited to his own enjoyment. He finds genuine satisfaction in seeing others savor a good meal, or hook into a fish. And he loves just spending time on the river. On rare days off, or before heading in to start prepping a dinner, you can often find him just enjoying a solo float.
“For me, it’s just chill and sit back, reflect, relax, take it all in, appreciate your surroundings,” he says. “Sometimes we take it for granted, so a solo float down the river is just a reboot for me if I need to step back from what I’m doing, whether that’s being in a kitchen and taking care of clients. Sometimes you need to take care of yourself too. For me it’s kind of like a mental check out.”
In addition to his go-to lobster rolls, Nechay’s favorite river meals depend on the weather and the season, and a good meal, he says, doesn’t necessarily have to be something elaborate. It’s all about using quality ingredients, including thoughtfully-chosen snacks and sides, and taking the time to prepare the meal with care.
“Sometimes in the summertime, I’ll just do a really big salad, like salad nicoise—it’s super light and refreshing, a ton of vegetables,” he says. “but in fall, winter, and spring—chili, gumbo, tikka masala, chicken curry—things that are hearty and warm. Even just a good, delicious chicken noodle soup and an awesome turkey sandwich on baguette. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something super fancy.”
As a big gumbo fan, I ask Nechay about his recipe, and in his answer I learn about passion that goes into his cooking. To dial in the recipe, he and a friend made more than 60 batches over the course of three years, making mental notes with each batch.
“I’d think, I’m not going to use that spice blend next time” he says, “or I’m going to take this and add this—different stocks, and different sausages, and chickens, and spice blends—the amount of trinity compared to protein and stock. The other thing is the roux—I like to take mine to the limit, burnt almost, like dark, dark, dark chocolate. To me that just brings on a more intense flavor and well-rounded gumbo.”
For Nechay, a day on the river is all about having a great experience, and the satisfaction of a good meal can go a long way toward that. While he has no problem eating a bologna sandwich, he believes there’s a big difference between a meal made with some forethought and something carelessly slapped together by somebody’s fishy hands.
“I think food’s important on a fishing experience,” he says. “And if you’re an independent guide, or working for somebody else and you’re required to make sandwiches, take your time to go to the grocery store and make it a good lunch. I think people really appreciate it. You don’t have to be a chef to make a nice roast beef sandwich. It goes a long way.”
The breeze stiffens. It’s late in the afternoon, and Nechay rows us toward a bunch of foam piled up where the current slows along the rock wall bank. I cast a big old terrestrial as close to the bank as I can get it.
“Chugalug, chug, chug,” he tells the fish. As if obeying, a good size brown slurps it. Nechay’s excitement at the take is genuine and equal to my own. I bring in the fish and snap a photo.
I cast again, and as I watch my fly drift, I ask him what he loves most about flyfishing.
“It’s a very mental game,” he says. “There’s a lot of moving parts to make one thing happen. And it’s not easy at first, but once you get good at it, it becomes addicting. And I love that each river is different. There’s always something to learn.”
The fish are feeding now. We bring in several back to back before a wind knot forces a break in the action. As I work it out, I ask Nechay what he loves most about cooking.
“Cooking is always about making people happy,” he says. “And I just thoroughly enjoy making food. I love to sit down and have a good meal, and if I can do it and make myself happy, and make everybody else happy, great. There is an art to it. It’s super creative. You can take a million different ingredients and pair them with a million different things and come up with something unique. There’s a challenge, too. Some people like fish or don’t like game meats or whatever it might be, so I like to take their likes and just blow them out of the water with it, going to the farmers market, handpicking ingredients, and just getting super excited about how it’s going to taste.”
The clouds break, and with the newfound intense sun, the bite is off. I sit down and sip my Coors, just enjoying the last stretch of the float and feeling utter satisfaction in the day.
“If I didn’t have flyfishing, I’d be the saltiest chef on the planet,” he says, lighting an American Spirit. The smell of the smoke is pleasant as it drifts along with us.
At the takeout, he winches the boat up onto the trailer. “You like Polish dogs?” he asks. “I know a place on the way back to town that makes a killer Polish dog. They call it the slaw dog.”
I’m still full from lunch, but I tell him “hell yeah” anyway. When somebody like Scott Nechay tells you to try the slaw dog, you ought to try the slaw dog.