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After two centuries of perfecting barbecued ribs and grilled steaks, the cowboy way has become gourmet. For Anthony Endy, the path to professional cooking has led to a new home at the Alisal Guest Ranch & Resort, up the road from downtown Solvang.

Actually, Endy has returned to the Santa Ynez Valley as the new executive chef at the Alisal.

“I grew up here — this is my home,” he said. “My family moved here when I was 3.”

Endy discussed his career path back to the Valley while sipping fresh-brewed coffee around a solid wooden table in the Oak Room Lounge, one of several dining venues at the sprawling resort.

“To have a home-grown chef in the kitchen is really something,” said Endy, who lives in the Valley with his wife Bethany, two sons and daughter, ages 6, 2 and 3, respectively. “I feel like all my work has accumulated to this point — to do this job. Everything just kind of lined up this way and I’m really grateful for it … coming back to my roots and doing something I love.”

The Santa Ynez Valley Union High School graduate cited several influences on the road to becoming a professional chef.

His grandmother and mother taught him the importance of enjoying homemade food as a daily activity.

“Food was always a big centerpiece for our family gatherings,” said Endy, who bussed tables at the Los Olivos Cafe while in school. “Right out of high school, I worked my way into serving and cooking.”

Growing up, his exposure to barbecuing instilled a passion for outdoor cooking, particularly in the Valley, where tender, slow-cooked meats have been ranch staples for more than a century.

“I’m a big fan of cooking over a live fire,” he said. “We have a lot of barbecues all over the ranch. I love cooking everything from fresh oysters to big beef ribs. It’s really fun. Living up here in the Central Coast, barbecues are just a part of your life.”

His job as a teenager at a local restaurant taught Endy the value of working in a team environment. After serving as director of operations at Los Olivos Cafe, he left to join Paul Martin’s American Grill at its headquarters in Orange County. Paul Martin’s was one of the first large-scale restaurants to promote “clean” organic, antibiotic-free beef, he said. As director of culinary, Endy helped open new locations in California and the Southwest.

Riding ranch cuisine

At the Alisal, honoring cowboy traditions is important. For Endy, that translates into sourcing produce and meats from local farms and ranches.

“We want to make sure our products are coming from nearby,” he said. “I love this area, and I want to showcase it. We have our own cuisine that’s very relevant to the Santa Ynez Valley.

“It’s about balance,” he continued. “That’s kind of what the ranch is all about, getting back to what matters most.”

The Alisal is a testament to the premium guests place on Western values, he noted.

“We have families that have been coming back for 30 or 40 years,” Endy said. “It’s a getaway, even down to having no televisions in the rooms. We’re going to provide you with an experience where you’re unplugged and exposed to what matters most — friends, family … nature. It’s kind of a cowboy way, where you’re focused on the people ... and the environment.”

The Alisal’s guests return year after year for all kinds of outdoor activities, including horseback riding, hiking, fishing, swimming, golfing and tennis. In between activities, dinning plays a crucial role. From breakfast and lunch to appetizers, dinner and dessert, guests expect healthy, quality food.

“I’m focusing on the ingredients … freshness and execution,” the executive chef said of his role at the Alisal, where he oversees everything from menu selection and meal planning, to negotiating with vendors and managing kitchen staff.

With several dining venues, including the River Grill & Terrace, Ranch Grill, Chuckwagon Grill and Oak Room Lounge, Endy said he wants the Alisal to become known as a “cornerstone” of fine dining in the region by expanding the use of fresh ingredients.

“This place represents so much history of the Central Coast,” he said. “My objective is to honor tradition. I really want this place to be the showcase of the Central Coast — from the ingredients we’re using to the wines we’re pouring.”

Delicious, fresh ingredients

One of the first moves Endy made as executive chef was to add fried chicken to the menu. Although most people think of it as simple, homestyle cooking, fried chicken is actually time consuming to prepare.

“I want to serve delicious, honest, just kind of straight-forward food,” Endy said. “People want something they can’t make at home. I mean, fried chicken sounds simple, but to marinate it for three days isn’t easy to do at home.”

At the Alisal, chicken pieces are marinated in brine with fresh lemon and herbs and then soaked in buttermilk overnight.

“We bread it and fry it golden brown,” Endy said. “It’s juicy. It has flavors of herbs and lemon, and it’s light.”

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Another home-style dish that’s become popular is meatloaf.

“I do a bacon-wrapped meatloaf with local-fresh green beans from Buttonwood [Farm], cheddar-chive mashed potatoes and skinny onion rings,” the chef said.

Although the number of dining guests served daily at the Alisal varies from month to month, Endy said kitchen staff typically serves more than 1,000 people a day on average, including special events. Accommodating their dining needs requires precision planning, whether it’s at one of the indoor restaurants or outdoors at one of the two golf courses, barbecue picnic areas or poolside. The challenge of servicing multiple dining venues is compounded by daily menu changes in the main guest restaurant.

“Essentially, we’re cooking 70-plus [different] dishes every week,” Endy said, citing several popular options on the menu, including butter fish (black cod) marinated in tequila with agave nectar, served with fresh heirloom tomatoes, white rice and fresh vinaigrette.

“Prime steaks are always real popular,” the chef added. “We do a blackened rib-eye steak, with roasted wild mushrooms and linguica cornmeal fritters. Another popular one is slow-roasted pork shank chile verde, with cheddar polenta. What’s even more popular is a cedar-plank salmon with a horseradish crust, sauteed spinach, roasted beets and a mushroom [sauce].”

Although mainstay items like prime rib and chicken-fried steak remain popular, Endy has introduced a vegan-style chipotle chili with butternut squash and beans that’s quickly gaining favor among guests.

“Another popular one,” he said, “is marinated skirt steak, maple-bourbon glazed sweet potatoes and arugula with olive oil and sea salt.”

The chef said prioritizing, planning and scheduling every detail before arriving at work in the morning are paramount to ensuring dishes are consistently good.

“When I walk in the door I know everything I have to do that day,” Endy said. “Consistency is always my biggest goal. You also have to have the right people. Training is key. We have servers that have been here for 26 years.

“We have a lot of great people in the kitchen,” he continued, noting everyone he works with — from the owner to resort staff — is dedicated and pleasant. “They want to make sure the guests have a great experience. Ultimately, our biggest feedback is our guests. It’s not just about if it sells. It’s whether they enjoy it.”

Returning to the Valley is blissful for Endy, who spent many years in various roles as a chef and restaurant-expansion director.

“I love what I do,” he said. “I have all my family here — my brother, my sisters and my mom. I’m raising my kids in the town where I grew up.”