Flame On: Recap of Our Visit to Alisal’s BBQ Bootcamp

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Grilling a regional version of Portuguese linguiça sausage, bacon-wrapped scallops, and ribs at BBQ Bootcamp. (Photo by Sara Heetderks)

Our May/June issue of Hotel F&B featured the twice-a-year, multi-day BBQ Bootcamp at Alisal Guest Ranch Resort & Spa near Santa Barbara. The program is a stellar example of combining a property’s surrounding resources and well-known F&B talent into an attractive destination package for guests. It’s also profitable for the resort, with approximately $55,000 in revenues each sold-out session.

BBQ Bootcamp is hosted by resort Executive Chef Pascal Godé, and features hands-on instruction and wines from Frank Ostini and Gray Hartley of nearby Hitching Post II—made famous in the 2004 Oscar-winning film Sideways, but for decades prior, a go-to place for wine enthusiasts and devotees of Santa Maria BBQ in the area.

Hitching Post rosé and their mobile Santa Maria-style BBQ grill. (Photo by Sara Heetderks)
Hitching Post rosé and their mobile Santa Maria-style BBQ grill. (Photo by Sara Heetderks)

The theme of the camp is Santa Maria-style BBQ, where grilling is done over indigenous live oak wood and uses a grate that can be raised or lowered depending on how close you want your meat to the flames—sort of a vertical version of indirect grilling.

I had a chance to experience BBQ Bootcamp recently at Alisal with approximately 35 other people, and below are our day-to-day highlights. (Photos are mine unless credited to Sara Heetderks.)

The ideas here can be transferred to any hotel—even if you’re not in sunny Santa Barbara County—by creating an “only available here” special event in an intimate setting, utilizing your property’s resources, and attracting regionally rooted F&B pros to give guests a sense of place, and a memorable bang for their buck.

We arrived on a Wednesday, and after checking into in our rooms we each found this unique Hitching Post amenity waiting for us—setting the tone and theme of BBQ Bootcamp immediately.

Our Hitching Post-themed in-room amenity.
Our Hitching Post-themed in-room amenity.

Later that afternoon, we had an introductory seminar from Godé and Ostini on the resort’s Creekside Lawn—where all the Bootcamp grilling happened over two days—and learned the basics of Santa Maria BBQ, including how the flames are actually started like a campfire, using newspaper and kindling, eventually igniting the larger pieces of live oak.

Chef Frank Ostini from Hitching Post explaining Santa Maria BBQ on our first day.
Chef Frank Ostini from Hitching Post explaining Santa Maria BBQ on our first day.

After that, we remained on the Creekside Lawn for an outdoor reception featuring Hitching Post wines, grilled appetizers—including melt-in-your-mouth pork belly squares from Brad Lettau, a longtime chef at Hitching Post II—followed by a dinner of Santa Maria-style tri-tip steak, chicken, grilled vegetables, and much more, at the resort’s Sycamore Room, adjacent to the Creekside Lawn.

Chef Pascal Godé grills chicken and tri-tip steak for Wednesday night's dinner. (Photo by Sara Heetderks)
Chef Pascal Godé grills chicken and tri-tip steak for Wednesday night’s dinner. (Photo by Sara Heetderks)

The next morning attendees were given time to explore the property, which is an actual working ranch on 10,500 acres, with stables for about 100 horses. Guests could play tennis, go to the outdoor pool, enjoy the spa, go horseback riding, visit the petting zoo, shoot carnival-style targets at the air rifle range, go wine tasting in Santa Barbara County, and more. I opted for the air rifle range along with a family of four on vacation from Orange County.

Enjoying a free morning at Alisal's air rifle range--like a booth of carnival targets dropped into the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Enjoying a free morning at Alisal’s air rifle range–like a booth of carnival targets dropped into the Santa Ynez Mountains.

After lunch—personally prepared boxed meals from Godé that we could eat when we wanted—we attended a spice blending workshop at the resort’s Cottonwood Room, where we learned the basics of combining flavors for meat and seafood, then created our own blends from nearly 50 different ingredients. We’d use our “proprietary” mixes during that night’s grilling session, and whatever remained we could take home.

Each attendee received a cheat sheet listing all the spices available for the blending session. (Photo by Sara Heetderks)
Each attendee received a cheat sheet listing all the spices available for the blending session. (Photo by Sara Heetderks)
Our spice blending workshop--about 50 different ingredients to mix and match.
Our spice blending workshop–about 50 different ingredients to mix and match.
My bottled meat and fish seasoning blends.
My bottled meat and fish seasoning blends.

Thursday evening we had another reception on the Creekside Lawn featuring wine from neighboring Melville Winery and SAMsARA wines, and craft beer from Firestone Walker Brewery, along with passed appetizers. We then chose our proteins for the dinner grilling session, which included grass-fed New York strip, skin-on airline chicken breast (both sourced from Newport Meat Company) jumbo shrimp, and natural salmon filets (from Universal Seafood L.A.)

Protein Power: Attendees choose from salmon, shrimp, airline chicken, and New York strip to grill for Thursday's dinner. (Photo by Sara Heetderks)
Protein Power: Attendees choose from salmon, shrimp, airline chicken, and New York strip to grill for Thursday’s dinner. (Photo by Sara Heetderks)
My hand-picked proteins prior to seasoning: Jumbo shrimp, New York strip, and skin-on airline chicken. Surf, turf, and free-range for dinner.
My hand-picked proteins prior to seasoning: Jumbo shrimp, New York strip, and skin-on airline chicken. Surf, turf, and free-range for dinner.

Guests seasoned their chosen proteins with their own spice blends, then worked alongside Godé, Ostini, or Lettau over the Santa Maria-style grates and flames to finish the food. Ostini and Lettau showed me how constantly basting the meat with butter or olive oil keeps the meat moist over the high heat while adding another layer of flavor.

Giving my proteins their initial sear on a Santa Maria-style grill grate.
Giving my proteins their initial sear on a Santa Maria-style grill grate.
Plating my proteins after lots of helpful tips from Hitching Post Chefs Frank Ostini and Brad Lettau.
Plating my proteins after lots of helpful tips from Hitching Post Chefs Frank Ostini and Brad Lettau.

During dinner in the Sycamore Room, Godé, Ostini, one of the purveyors, and some of the attendees engaged in a spirited discussion about sustainable farming practices, and the effect that high volume production can have on it.

Spirited discussion in the Sycamore Room about sustainable farming.
Spirited discussion in the Sycamore Room about sustainable farming.

On Friday morning, attendees rode Alisal’s horses about an hour outside the resort into the Santa Ynez Mountains for a frontier-style breakfast, featuring from-scratch pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, quesadillas, and more. While eating, guests were entertained by a local singer strumming his acoustic guitar, crooning cowboy songs and telling tall tales, like how the waffle was actually invented out on the range in the 1800s.

Riding my horse Popeye to breakfast.
Riding my horse Popeye to breakfast.
Breakfast in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
Breakfast in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
A cowboy crooner serenades BBQ Bootcamp attendees during breakfast.
A cowboy crooner serenades BBQ Bootcamp attendees during breakfast.

We rode back down to Alisal after breakfast, and after dismounting from our horses, BBQ Bootcamp was officially over—a unique, experiential ending to the event, and a great way to punctuate Alisal’s hands-on hospitality and attendee options beyond the BBQ.

Late afternoon at Alisal.
Late afternoon at Alisal.