The Mad Scientist of Thanksgiving
Former executive chef Tom McNeill founded his Gourmet Cowboy catering business in October 2001, after 10 years in the valley working for other people.McNeill’s bread and butter is his Cajun-style deep fried turkeys, a cooking process he stole from New Orleans and has introduced into Eagle County’s cookbook with great success. With Thanksgiving upon us and Christmas right around the corner, McNeill took some time away from the pots to explain to the Trail’s Scott Cunningham why he shouldn’t microwave his dinner this holiday season.VT: So you’re the man who introduced the deep fried turkey to the valley?Tom: Pretty much. Terry Bradshaw featured it during his Super Bowl broadcast a few years ago, and it took off after that.VT: I love Terry. We have posters of him all over the Vail Trail office. You, however, have pictures of people being hanged in your office. What is that?Tom: I bought that photograph for $20 at the Cassidy’s auction. It’s the last hanging in Leadville.VT: Is that a church in the background?Tom: Or the courthouse. It’s hard to tell. Everyone is dressed up in their Sunday best though.VT: Speaking of clothes, you cater a lot of high-end events: weddings in Bachelor Gulch, the Ritz-Carlton opening, etc. Do your caterers wear chaps?Tom: No, but we can dress down or up, depending on the event. Our style is always a combination of gourmet flair and the Old West, just like our food. For instance, we recently did a dinner at George Gillette’s house for the entire Montreal Canadians hockey team. We had fine china and glassware, but served the food on the classic cowboy blue metal plates.VT: Hockey players are big.Tom: We cooked them 1-inch thick steaks. They ate a lot and fell in love with the authentic Colorado cuisine.VT: That’s the Gourmet Cowboy’s modus operandi, isn’t it? High-class service and style entrenched in the Old West?Tom: Absolutely, and now we’ve added the location to go along with it. We’re now doing catered dinners up at Piney Lake with a full Thanksgiving feast, seven days a week.VT: Thanksgiving every day?Tom: A turkey, plus all the fixin’s: mashed potatoes, veggies, two salads, a Cajun sausage stuffing or a traditional stuffing, a cranberry chutney for the meat, and fresh breads and pies from Columbine bakery.VT: How do you get up there?Tom: Well, for the lunch and snack trips, which are Thanksgiving-themed but not the full feast, we have 25 brand-new snowmobiles that our guests will drive up the 12 mile trail to the Piney Lake Cabin. Once there, you can ice skate on Piney Lake, go sledding or snowshoeing. For the dinner, we take everyone up in Hummers.VT: Schwarzenegger-style. Do you serve alcohol?Tom: For the people riding in the Hummers, yes. Beaver Liquors supplies the wine. But it would be a bad idea to give snowmobilers alcohol.VT: Depends on your point of view. This one time well, anyway, you’re probably right. That trip sounds amazing, but let’s talk about the deep fried turkeys. You’ll need to explain this process slowly because I’m used to a traditional, four hours-in-the-oven bird.Tom: Deep frying, first of all, requires at maximum one hour of cooking time.VT: That’s insane.Tom: I know. The first time I had one was at a friend’s house in New Orleans. I came over at 4:30 p.m. and the turkey was lying frozen on the counter. “What time are we eating?” I asked him, and then he took me outside and showed me the cooker with the pot full of oil.VT: It’s peanut oil, right?Tom: Exactly. You just lower the bird in there.VT: Doesn’t that turn the turkey into one big KFC entre?Tom: Actually, the skin comes out a golden brown, kind of like Peking Duck.VT: Is it fatty like Chinese food? Indoor soccer season is coming up.Tom: No more so than a traditional turkey. If you’re watching your weight, just don’t eat the skin.VT: The skin is good though, huh?Tom: Yes, it’s excellent.VT: By the way, what’s that syringe your holding?Tom: Oh, that’s for injecting liquids into the turkey before you cook it. Everyone has their own recipe, like I have a Thanksgiving one, a Greek one and one that’s just barbecue sauce thinned out with beer. You use the syringe to inject the liquid seasoning in every part of the bird, and then, when the bird hits the hot oil, the skin forms a seal. It makes the meat very tender and flavorful.VT: Sounds kind of like breast implants. Can you tell us your Thanksgiving recipe.Tom: No, it’s top secretVT: Cool.Tom: but I’ll give you the Greek one. It’s a mixture of olive oil, lemon juice, fresh garlic, salt, white pepper and fresh oregano. Puree it, and then inject it into every part of the bird.VT: I’ve heard this process can be dangerous. Aren’t inexperienced deep fryers burning their houses down?Tom: Yes, it can be very dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. A lot of people forget to drain the cavity of the bird beforehand or they put too much oil in, and then the oil overflows and ignites the open flame. It’s a lot like a volcanic explosion. My barber burnt himself pretty bad doing it.VT: I don’t think I’ll try this myself then.Tom: It’s hard to mess up if you know what you’re doing.VT: You’re underestimating my abilities, Tom. One other thing I noticed is that you purchased the Grand Champion turkey from this year’s Eagle County Fair.Tom: I sure did. Isn’t she pretty? She’s 24 lbs.VT: Is the winner simply the fattest bird?Tom: No, there are all sorts of factors.VT: Kind of like a beauty pageant for turkeys. Can I see her? There aren’t a lot of pretty females around here.Tom: Actually, she’s dead and sitting in the freezer.VT: Oh.Tom: We’re auctioning her off to the highest bidder to be included in a full Thanksgiving Day feast for 20 people.VT: Great. Here’s 10 bucks. Did I win?Tom: No, we’ve got a $1,000 bid on the table already.VT: Well, for other people then, when is the last day to bid?Tom: Monday, Nov. 25. Call my office: 970-748-6898.VT: For those of us who don’t win, can we still pay you to deep fry a turkey for us?Tom: Of course. You just tell me the time you want it done, and we’ll finish cooking it right before you pick it up.VT: Seriously, how do they cook so quickly?Tom: Don’t ask me the science of how it’s done. I can’t figure it out myself.