Scott Neuman is a “regular” at the Bend’s annual Sagebrush Classic feast. The exuberant executive chef at ¡Oba!, in Portland’s Pearl District, has been a part of the action for six straight years, beginning in 2005. As such, he’s one of Sagebrush’s biggest fans.
“This is the best-put-together event I attend, and it’s the most fun,” Scott told me. “At most fund-raising culinary events, chefs are used as collateral. This is so totally different. Here, chefs get to socialize with each other. We can talk shop and not be in our own shop while we’re doing so. It’s something I look forward to all year round.”
¡Oba!, said Neuman, is an exclamation akin to “Yippee!” in Brazilian Portuguese. “It’s an exclamation of joy,” he said. “It’s Friday happy hour. Hooray!” And that enthusiasm is reflected in the menu of the restaurant whose kitchen he has run since it opened in late 1997.
¡Oba! focuses upon Caribbean-style renditions of seafoods and meats. Patrons come to dine on mesquite-grilled wild salmon in a banana-garlic sauce, served with black bean-avocado salsa; or flank steak with mashed boniato sweet potato and roasted corn salsa. The sweet-and-spicy guava-habanero sauce that Neuman applies to pork ribs was something he learned as a child, watching his father at work on the family barbecue.
Scott grew up in Texas and Chicago. He earned a communications degree at the University of Texas in Austin, supporting himself by working at restaurants. “I was only going to do it for a couple of years,” said Neuman, now 46. “A couple of years has turned into 25.”
He pursued restaurant jobs in Dallas, Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area. At Skates on the Bay in Berkeley, a chance meeting with restaurateur Steve McLain led him to Oregon. McLain purchased the Hall Street Grill in Beaverton in 1993 and hired Neuman as his executive chef. Four years later he established ¡Oba!, and Scott followed.
A culinary tour of Mexico with chefs Rick Bayless and Ricardo Munoz led Neuman to further travels in the Caribbean and Central America. And he always had “Gulf Coast cuisine in my head.” Today at ¡Oba!, Scott said, “We take the influences of the indigenous areas and translate them to the tastes of the Portland area.”
“From the time I was 11 and my family went to dine at Antoine’s in New Orleans, I grew up thinking restaurants were magical places,” Neuman said. “Over the years, I learned to become the magician. I am now creating the memories for others that I once had created for me.”