Aspen Times Weekly: A California classic
IF YOU GO ...
The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort
Oct. 28-30, 2015
1054 S. Alisal Rd. Solvang, CA 93463
Reservations: (800) 4-ALISAL or (805) 688-6411
It was the fragrant smell of smoke in the air that grabbed me by the nostrils and sent me scurrying to the vast lawns at the quintessentially Californian Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort.
I had journeyed from Aspen to the Santa Barbara wine country for an intensive weekend of live-fire cooking at Alisal’s BBQ Boot Camp. But alas, a day of wine touring in the amazing local vineyards had distracted me. So, by the time I checked in the heady aroma of red oak was already wafting through the coastal oaks, sycamores and eucalyptus trees that cocoon the Ranch. The festivities were about to get under way.
The Alisal Ranch and Resort, centered just outside of Solvang, not far from where the Santa Ynez Valley meets the Pacific, is an American gem. Over 10,000 acres of what was once the native hunting grounds of California’s Chumash Indians has been transformed into an idyllic getaway for those who gather to ride horses, play tennis, golf, hike, bike, swim, or just plain relax with their families.
Opened to the public for play in 1946 by the Jackson Family, who still own the property, Alisal marries the luxury of a resort with the ruggedness of a dude ranch and the activities of a summer camp. More than 70 cabin-like suites and studios set around the lawns and gardens of the grounds are just a short walk from stables that provide epic backcountry equestrian getaways, tennis courts that have hosted the world’s top players and a pair of golf courses that challenge pro and weekend duffers alike.
But for those who return year after year (I sat with four, yes four, generations of one family who have been visiting Alisal since the 1950s), the distinguishing characteristic that keeps coming up in conversation is the exceptional cuisine. In particular, the wood-fired BBQs that have been a staple for the past 60 years. So it only made sense that the resort’s executive chef, Pascal Godé, would team with the region’s most famous purveyor of Santa Maria BBQ, chef Frank Ostini from the renowned Hitching Post II in nearby Buellton, to show guests how it’s done.
Arriving at the great lawn I was greeted by a serious set-up of smokers and grills, and tables piled high with fresh asparagus, thick steaks and chops, and ruby salmon. Under the sycamores stood the Frenchman, Godé, and the Italian-Californian, Ostini, in matching pith helmets. In front of them, lounging in lawn chairs and standing on the outdoor deck of the dining area, were 40 or so of my fellow students, each with a glass of local beer or wine in hand. This was going to be fun.
The Hitching Post has been synonymous with great steaks since Frank’s father opened the Casmalia location in 1952. He has spent his entire life working in the kitchens and behind the grills that have created a specialty cuisine identified as “Santa Maria” style BBQ. It revolves around the use of wood fires to give meats, fowl and seafood their unique flavor, which also involves something called “Magic Stuff,” a seasoning blend that is proprietary to the restaurant. In 2004, the Academy Award-winning film “Sideways,” about a pair of wine buddies traveling the region, featured a number of scenes in the restaurant and the popularity of Hitching Post II exploded.
Godé, who has been executive chef at the Alisal Guest Ranch for 22 years, came from a very different cooking background. He honed his skills in many of the best restaurants in France before coming to America to helm the kitchens of a number of prominent French-American restaurants in Four Seasons Resorts.
Over the next three days, this unlikely pair led myself and the other students/guests/chefs through the intricacies of great BBQ. From the use of charcoal versus gas, what woods impart what flavors, how to light the fires, what cuts to cook, how to flavor the smoke, and, perhaps most important, the best way to tell when your BBQ is done, we covered just about everything imaginable in the world of live fire cooking. A particularly popular element of the curriculum was a session where each of us was encouraged to create our own rubs from a table that featured over 30 different salts, herbs and spices.
But as great as the tips and suggestions, nothing beat the bacchanalia of the dining experience. Each night we gathered around the grills and savored Santa Maria brilliance. From the simple onions and peppers to the all-time primo proteins, each bite was unforgettable. Smoke was the common denominator.
By the time the BBQ Boot Camp weekend was over at the Alisal Ranch and Resort, I had become a master of my own grill universe. The lessons learned have brought newfound BBQ joy, not just for me, but for my summer guests as well.
The Alisal Ranch BBQ Boot Camp returns for a Fall “semester” this October. It is suggested that students “apply” early. You’ll be glad you did.