I absolutely love culinary immersion experiences. I’ve participated in hands-on cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. I’ve attended competition pitmaster classes across the country. And now, I’ve been to BBQ Bootcamp.
This isn’t a fitness bootcamp. It’s the kind of bootcamp that calls for stretchy pants.
BBQ Bootcamp is a three-day barbecue nirvana at the Alisal Guest Ranch, which is tucked in the lush hills of Central California just off the coast of the Pacific Ocean. When you arrive, you can hear the sounds of a nearby creek and the neighs of horses. The aroma of burning oak is interspersed with fresh mountain air.
It’s as if you’ve stepped back to a simpler time.
Before the food and festivities begin, you’ll check into your cabin. Be prepared. There is no TV. No phone. But out here, you don’t need it.
While it’s tempting to relax by the fireplace or sit out on the lawn, it’s time to get bootcamp started.
Santa Maria-Style Barbecue
Alisal Guest Ranch is located near the town of Santa Maria, the home of Santa Maria-style barbecue. Chef Frank Ostini, owner of the Hitching Post II, and Anthony Endy, Executive Chef at Alisal, start things off, explaining this style.
Chef Ostini said that people native to the area cooked over open fire pit without the aid of thermometers. They relied on touch and feel. His family has proudly followed a similar technique for 67 years.
To build the fire, Chef Ostini uses California red oak. He recommends burning the oak for a good 30-60 minutes to build a hot bed of coals. He cleans the grill grate and then rubs it generously with a slab of beef fat to season it.
The fire pit of the past has evolved into a large elevated metal box. The grill grate hovers over the flames suspended by wire connected to a metal bar. To control the heat, the grate is raised and lowered by turning a handle on the side that causes the wire to wrap around the bar.
Flip Your Meat Often
I’ve always been taught to flip my meat once, maybe twice, with the idea being that the more you flip it, the more chances that the juices will drip out and you’ll dry out your meat.
Both Chef Ostini and Chef Endy busted that myth.
Instead, they watch the meat closely. When it hits the grate, the fire starts to drive the juices up toward the top. Just before the juices break through the surface, it’s time to flip. Then, the heat will do the same thing on the other side.
The juices will again be forced up to the top, and just before they get there, it’s time to flip.
This monitoring is repeated over an over, until the meat reaches the desired internal temperature.
Chef Ostini also bastes with every flip with a blend of red wine vinegar and garlic corn oil, and he adds a sprinkle of salt, pepper and granulated garlic.
There were so many more techniques as valuable as these shared with the group, and the chefs were open to answering all of our questions.
Day one concluded with a bread baking demo and a feast of appetizers, meats and sides all grilled on site, along with signature cocktails, and beer and wine tastings.
Spice is the Variety of Life
On Day 2 of BBQ Bootcamp, we walked into the Cottonwood Room to an aroma of at least 20 spices that lined a long table. It was workshop time.
Joy Culley, the owner of Solvang Spice Merchant, explained the origin and tasting notes of the different herbs and spices, and then we were invited to develop our own blend.
I teamed up with Derek Wolf from Over the Fire Cooking to create some original blends. He had a great idea for a dry chimichurri. We walked the line and added a bit of this and a bit of that, until we were happy.
We were able to jar up and label our new spice blend, so we could cook with it at home.
If you don’t have any spice making experience, no worries. They taught us some blending tips and shared some basic recipes.
Following the workshop, Paula Disbrowe shared some amazingly incredible ways to add smoke as a “spice” to a variety of dishes, including grains, nuts and even cocktails.
I’m usually a big meat eater, but the vegetable and grain-friendly lunch that was served using her recipes was so satisfying.
Disbrowe has authored five cookbooks, including her latest “Thank you for Smoking.” She took the time to answer everyone’s questions about how to incorporate smoke as a flavor.
Even Dessert Can Be Grilled
Acclaimed pastry chef Valerie Gordon, owner of Valerie Confections in LA, fired up some Big Green Eggs to teach bootcamp-goers that even dessert can be grilled.
She started with one of my all time favorite desserts – sticky toffee pudding.
The recipe involved developing a rich, luscious homemade salted caramel sauce and a batter with dates rehydrated in mezcal – a smoky agave liquor similar to tequila.
She buttered the cast iron skillet uber liberally, added the batter and baked it over indirect heat, drizzling in the caramel sauce. When grilling, she advised us to add about 10 minutes of cook time to a standard “baked” dessert recipe.
Valerie’s presentation style was so endearing. She often invited bootcampers up to help her bake.
It wouldn’t be a BBQ bootcamp without a lesson in brisket.
Burt Bakman, pitmaster and owner of LA’s SLAB and Trudy’s Underground Barbecue, taught us his techniques for trimming and smoking a brisket.
He keeps things simple with a blend of salt and pepper, and he smokes his brisket slow and low around 250F degrees with a butcher paper wrap toward the end.
One of the coolest tricks I learned from him is that after his brisket is done smoking, he wraps it in plastic wrap as it rests. This kept his brisket so super moist.
Ring of Fire Grand BBQ
After a day of camp, we got to celebrate with a feast. In addition to Burt’s brisket and Valerie’s sticky toffee pudding, Chef Endy fired up the Santa Maria pits again for tomahawk steaks.
And his team was feverishly working behind the scenes, smoking up beef ribs and fresh trout along with delicious sides. The meal was accompanied with a signature cocktail and a new complementing beer and wine selection.
I’m Gonna Take My Horse to the Old Town Road
On the final day, we got to explore the ranch – via horseback.
I mounted my trusty buddy, Ike, and we rode for miles through the central hills of California through the working angus cattle ranch. Those who weren’t up for a horseback ride took the hay wagon to the adobe.
When we arrived, a continental breakfast was waiting for us with fresh fruits, pastries and coffee.
We enjoyed one final cooking demo by Valerie, and then the full farm-style breakfast was served.
To wrap things up, we rode our horses back to the barn and said our goodbyes to our new BBQ family.
In addition to learning about barbecue techniques, that’s really what I love about these trips. Barbecue just has a way of bringing strangers together. And when you add a beautiful setting and talented chefs and teachers, it’s quite a remarkable, memorable experience.
After the Ranch
As I drove back to the airport, I reminisced about the BBQ, friends and outdoor adventure I experienced in two and a half days. I took a quick exit to one of the state beaches for a selfie and to breathe in some fresh ocean air.
When I got to the airport, it dawned on me that I couldn’t leave Central California without my own Santa Maria grill. I canceled my flight, extended my rental, and drove to Costco.
Unfortunately, my little sedan could only fit a Santa Maria tailgater, instead of the big guy, but that’s okay. I continued my drive back home to Vegas with one heck of a souvenir.