Cooking out goes culinary: Kentucky chef wants to elevate your next campfire
Published in the Herald Leader
Written by Patti Nickell
Thu, September 7, 2023 at 9:59 a.m. EDT·4 min read
Tony Miller has the soul of a cowboy. The Benton native, 49, grew up camping, fishing and trail-blazing with his family, and for a time was even part of a group called the Kaintuck Muzzleloaders, re-enactors of the fur-trapping mountain men who contributed much to American folklore.
After a day of muzzle-loading and re-enacting, he enjoyed nothing more than retreating deep into the woods with his friends “with a lot of food and a lot of bourbon” and basically cooking for two days.
The iron skillets they used for their 21st century cookouts were similar to those used by trail drive and wagon train cooks in the 19th century.
Miller, who now lives in Lawrenceburg, has found a creative outlet for his interests. He offers what he refers to as an “elevated campfire cooking experience” to those who share both his passion for outdoor dining around a fire and his love of locally produced food. No beef jerky and beans here, folks.
Recently, I discovered Miller’s skill with a skillet at a campfire cookout on the grounds of Bourbon Barrel Cottages.
For this experience, I chose the cottages in the hills just outside Lawrenceburg for their picturesque setting and the handy fire pit beside my cottage that Miller would be using.
However, Miller assures that he can provide this experience wherever one chooses to have it.
Instead of “Have Gun, Will Travel,” his calling card could read, “Have Skillets, Will Travel.”
You provide the location and the fire, and he provides everything else.
On this occasion, the everything else was a three-course feast beginning with fresh caught prawns marinated in buttermilk and tossed in chili garlic oil and Cajun seasoning prior to being seared on the grate.
The main course was pan-seared tilapia. In the same pan as the fish, Miller added shallots, butter, garlic, and white wine from a local vineyard — reducing it for several minutes before adding heavy cream.
The fish was served over couscous which he had cooked in a second Dutch oven, and paired with grilled zucchini and tomatoes.
For dessert, it was grilled fresh peaches with blueberries and homemade whipped cream drizzled with honey.
I think it’s safe to say the men of “Rawhide” and “Wagon Train” never ate like this.
What are Miller’s secrets to a successful elevated campfire experience?
For starters, as much as possible, he likes to source his ingredients locally. Except for the prawns which came from the Louisiana Gulf Coast, the rest of our meal did Kentucky proud.
Second, it’s the type of wood he uses for the menu chosen.
“The smoke from certain woods complements certain foods,” he explains.
In our case, the fish, prawns and fruits required a lighter wood to bring out their delicate flavors, so his choice was sassafras wood mixed with locust. If beef is on the menu, he uses a sturdier wood such as hickory to get a stronger smoke flavor.
Finally, even though he calls it an elevated experience, Miller prefers making the fire on the ground rather than on a raised surface like the fire pit.
“It makes it easier to keep the fire going and to give it all the air it needs,” he says.
As Miller got busy, I sat back with a glass of chardonnay from Lover’s Leap Winery, located just down the road from Bourbon Barrel Cottages, prepared for a leisurely wait.
After all, didn’t those cowboys have enough time to croon “Home on the Range” and a couple of other ditties before the chow was ready?
They may have, but we certainly didn’t. Miller explains that one of the challenges in modern campfire cooking, especially at this level, is keeping the temperatures in sync while using two Dutch ovens.
“Different levels of heat are required for different dishes,” he says, explaining that he needed a lower heat for the couscous than for searing the fish and prawns.
In what seemed no time, our meal was ready, and to call it elevated is an understatement.
If you want to check out Miller’s prowess with the pans, go to his Culinary Campfire videos on YouTube where he has four episodes ranging from five minutes to 40 minutes in length.
You’ll find him cooking dishes not usually associated with a campfire such as pan-seared mahi mahi and pasta puttanesca.
And if you are considering having your own cowboy/cowgirl cooking experience, here’s what you need to know: He can accommodate up to eight people, although his ideal number is two to four; he will curate a menu for you or collaborate with you on what you want, and based on that menu, he will negotiate a price.
Oh, and he doesn’t do campfire cookouts in July and August, preferring cooler weather.
“My favorite times to do the cookouts are fall and winter when the leaves have changed and there’s a nip in the air,” he says.
“It’s just as much fun for the guests and it’s a lot easier on the cook.”
To contact Miller, email him at culinarycampfire2 at gmail.com