It was no surprise to the people who knew Shawn Smalley that he wanted a pirate wedding. An imposing figure with a large beard and tattoos, Smalley gladly donned pirate garb for public appearances or while promoting his Stillwater restaurant, Smalley’s Caribbean Barbecue and Pirate Bar.
The other thing they knew: behind the tough exterior was a soft-hearted and gifted chef who held his friends close.
Smalley, 45, of Stillwater, died Sept. 9, several days after a seizure left him in a coma. The shock of his passing brought an outpouring of love and sadness to social media when the news broke.
“One of the things about him is he’s among the most loyal and generous people I’ve ever met,” said Tim McKee, the James Beard award-winning chef. “He would do anything for you if you’re his friend.”
Smalley got his pirate wedding in 2006 when he married Tirah Jensen at the Outing Lodge in Pine Point Regional Park. Two years later he opened Smalley’s.
A 1995 graduate of Stillwater High School, Smalley had earned a reputation as a top-flight grill cook at La Belle Vie, the celebrated restaurant launched by McKee and Josh Thoma.
“He was just phenomenal, and I loved working with him,” said McKee.
McKee and Smalley traveled to Jamaica to learn the secrets of jerk sauce, finding a kitchen where they got to know people who made authentic Jamaican recipes.
They opened Smalley’s in 2008 on Stillwater’s Main Street, drawing raves for such items as the jerk pork tacos, a concoction that included grilled scallion aioli, Scotch bonnet peppers, cilantro and Bourbon Beach sauce, named for the Jamaican spot where they learned secrets of Caribbean cooking.
Smalley’s Caribbean Barbecue and Pirate Bar took a turn in the limelight when Guy Fieri’s show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” paid a visit for episode 6 of season 14. Smalley served a grateful Fieri a jerk pork taco, and then a batch of “666 wings,” Smalley’s take on chicken wings that left Fieri and his television crew gasping. “They’re not Minnesota hot,” Smalley deadpanned. “They’re hot hot.”
The vibe at the restaurant was always a big draw, said Christy Allen, a longtime friend of Tirah’s.
“He just made it a really welcoming, fun environment,” she said. “Just everyone felt accepted there and loved.”
Friends of Smalley’s knew about his cooking talents long before Fieri showed up, thanks in part to his habit of holding a “friendsgiving,” feeding anyone who needed it. One year the menu was German, one year it was a curry. New foods were always possible with Smalley. “I remember him making kim chi and having that fermenting in the trunk of his car one day,” said Allen.
For a holiday one year, Smalley asked his father-in-law, Joel Jensen, to dig a pit, line it with rocks and start a fire. The pit became a slow-cooker for pork wrapped in wet banana leaves, seasoned, and then covered with rocks and dirt. The pork, dug up the next day, was delicious, said Jensen.
“The best meals I’ve ever had in my life, Shawn cooked, bar none,” said Jensen. “He had a way with food and flavorings and spices. It was almost intuitive.”
Smalley was among a core group of local business owners who helped restart Stillwater’s annual Lumberjack Days festival after an event organizer was accused of skimming funds.
His restaurant served up Caribbean fare for 10 years before closing in 2018.
Smalley continued cooking at area restaurants, including the White Bear Yacht Club, Portside, Phil’s Tara Hideaway and others.
And he continued donning his pirate costume. Smalley, in pirate garb and with his dog, was photographed for the coffee table book “Of Beards and Men” by Minneapolis photographer Nicholas Daniel Robert Oleary.
Smalley’s longtime friend Brad Githens said his pirate fascination was just a part of his life, like the way he loved Star Wars, the Minnesota Vikings, his wife and his friends.
“Besides missing him incredibly, I think really he’s summed up in the words that he was larger than life,” said Githens. “He was passionate about everything he did. And he loved you and you could always tell it.”
A private funeral and celebration of life is being planned.