I should start by admitting off the bat that I knew next to nothing about barbecue, other than that I very much enjoy eating it, when I set out for a three-day bootcamp devoted to all things grilled at the Alisal Ranch in California’s Santa Ynez Valley.
I did know, however, that those with more expertise about the subject are very particular — amateur and professional pitmasters alike all seem to have opinions about the best styles, the tastiest rubs, the most effective methods, even the vernacular. (Five years spent living in the South taught me to never say “barbecue” when I really mean “cookout.”) So I wasn’t sure what to expect at the dude ranch’s biannual event, put together by its executive chef, Anthony Endy.
What I found was a close-knit community of guests, all eager to learn, take in the area’s gorgeous scenery and — most importantly — chow down on more meat than any one person should consume in a 72-hour period. This wasn’t the typical paper-plates-and-starchy-sides fare you might imagine depending on what style of barbecue you’re familiar with, however. If anything, my three days at bootcamp taught me to reconsider the genre entirely and introduced me to a regional twist on grilling.
Santa Maria-style barbecue is old-school
Frank Ostini, owner and chef of Buellton, California’s Hitching Post II restaurant, has become a spokesman of sorts for the traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue, which features meats — usually beef tri-tip — cooked over a red oak fire. (Traditional Santa Maria-style BBQ fare includes tri-tip, Santa Maria-style salsa, tossed green salad, pinquito beans, grilled garlic bread and strawberry shortcake.) Ostini educated attendees about how to operate the hand-cranked iron grill and cook over an oak wood fire, reminding us that it’s important to burn off all the old grease by scraping it with a wire brush after starting the new fire and then re-seasoning the grill with fat. Always baste the food as you grill it.
The style dates back to the 19th century, when ranchers along the state’s Central Coast would host feasts each spring for their vaqueros, and it was a favorite of Ronald Reagan, who had five Santa Maria-style feasts on the South Lawn of the White House during his presidency.
How to create the ideal spice blend
The general rule for the ideal spice blend, Solvang Spice Merchant owner Joy Culley taught us, is some combination of salt, sugar, flavor, spice/heat and color. A basic rub will usually consist of five parts paprika, four parts kosher salt, three parts garlic powder, two parts ground black pepper and one part brown sugar. But of course, you can get more creative than that, and in spice blending class, we had the opportunity to experiment with everything from clove and assorted chile powders to Mexican oregano and Worcestershire powder. The trick is to keep in mind what type of protein you’re preparing (and if it’s fish, use about half of what you would on other meats) — and don’t, as I did, get overly excited and toss in every single flavor on the table that catches your eye. You want to taste the seasoning, not blow out your palate. (Though I have tried the insane little-bit-of-everything blend I threw together sprinkled on eggs, and it’s pretty good when used sparingly.)
Barbecue can be a boys’ club, but it shouldn’t be
The barbecue world is still known as a boys’ club despite an abundance of female chefs and pitmasters elevating the realm of all things grilled with their expertise. As chocolatier Valerie Gordon — known for her grilled desserts — told me at dinner one night, she’s still met with sexism at barbecue events on a regular basis. “I was at this one event where my face was literally on the poster, and I still got mistaken for somebody’s wife,” she said. “They were like” — here she adopts an exaggerated Southern accent — “‘oh, I didn’t know you were cooking, I thought you were someone’s wife.’”
Thankfully, that bro-y ignorance was nowhere to be found at BBQ Bootcamp, where Gordon and Paula Disbrowe were some of the most popular instructors — viewed as innovators and peppered with questions — and many of the attendees were couples on vacation who seemed to split their grilling duties equally.
You can smoke pretty much anything, including olives
Paula Disbrowe’s presentation took place right before lunchtime on Day 2, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. The author of cookbooks like Cowgirl Cuisine: Rustic Recipes and Cowgirl Adventures from a Texas Ranch and Thank You for Smoking: Fun and Fearless Recipes Cooked with a Whiff of Wood Fire on Your Grill Or Smoker likely knew that we could use a temporary break from heavy red meat. She focused her tutorial on smoking or grilling vegetables like kale and utilizing that smokiness to add a unique flavor. She smoked olives for the delicious tapenade she made to top grilled chicken thighs at lunch, but she mentioned that they also go perfectly in a martini. (She set some aside for that exact purpose later that evening, and I can attest that yes, you should absolutely be putting smoked olives in your drinks.)
The lunch was light compared to the rest of the bootcamp’s meals — chicken and the tapenade and an assortment of vegetables — but it was one of the most memorable. It was as if Disbrowe knew our bodies, exhausted from hours under the California sun and a day of truly absurd meat intake, were crying out for something green.
Savory bread pudding exists, and it’s delicious
On the final morning of BBQ Bootcamp, we rode through the ranch’s sprawling property — some of us by horseback, the rest of us by haywagon — up to its historic Adobe property for one final meal. The breakfast featured some of the Alisal’s classic offerings, including a giant pancake with the ranch’s logo poured into it that some of the families who have been coming for decades made sure to point out. But the real star of the breakfast was Valerie Gordon’s savory bread pudding — a clever twist on the familiar dessert that swaps out the sweetness of the original for minced bacon and brisket, herbs (rosemary and thyme), garlic and cheese. It was almost like an extravagant stuffing, and it would make the perfect Thanksgiving side. After everyone was done devouring it, Gordon demonstrated how to prepare it on a Big Green Egg grill, but you can make it in your regular oven at home as well. Bake it at 350 degrees for about 45 minutes until it’s puffed up and brown.
The Santa Ynez Valley’s a treasure trove that extends beyond barbecue
Barbecue was obviously the main event at the ranch, but bootcamp set out to highlight some of the area’s other local culinary treasures — of which, it turns out, there are plenty. Bob Oswaks of Bob’s Well Bread in Los Alamos did a bread-making demonstration, and his bread wound up in Gordon’s savory bread pudding the following morning. Ostini’s Hitching Post Wines — which he runs with partner Gray Hartley — were served with dinner, highlighting the area’s rich wine tradition. The winery’s Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir was featured in Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004), and it produces about 15,000 cases a year.
“When we started to make wine, I had one purpose: to get good wine on my family restaurant’s table — wine that I produced,” Ostini says. “Doing the food and wine is all I ever wanted to do, and it’s still all I ever really want to do.”
Barbecue brings people together
This one’s a no-brainer, but there’s just something about sitting together around an open flame that fosters a sense of community. Many of the attendees at BBQ Bootcamp were repeat visitors — including some who had been visiting the ranch since their childhood — and they were all happy to share their wisdom, whether it was insight about where to sit on the haywagon to get the best view of the lake or a simple affirmation that yes, you should absolutely get a steak AND a grilled lobster. (It’s honestly a miracle I don’t still have the meat sweats.) But that geniality extended beyond the visitors to the chefs and instructors as well, all of whom mingled with guests during every meal, snapping selfies, sharing laughs and drinks and happily answering any questions.
And that, ultimately, is why a novice like me who has no intentions of ever trimming and smoking her own brisket can still happily spend three days soaking up the knowledge imparted by these experts. The rules and methods are fascinating, the tips are helpful, but when it comes down to it, there’s nothing that beats sharing a meal under the stars — the smokier the better.
The next BBQ Bootcamps at the Alisal Ranch will take place May 3-5 and October 11-13.
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