In the Kitchen with Matt Johnson

By Claudia Schou   |   December 24, 2020
At San Ysidro Ranch, executive chef Matt Johnson has won over longtime, loyal diners who love his avant garde approach to cooking

These days it’s hard to get excited about anything when days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months and the only glimmer of hope is your next home-cooked meal. Same salad dressing, same lemon chicken, same wine, and the same cloth napkins (just washed). Life has been, well, uneventful. That is, up until last week, when I grabbed my winter coat and purse and raced up to San Ysidro Ranch for a cooking demo with executive chef Matt Johnson

Chef Johnson had prepared and set out all of the ingredients: Fresh herbs, spices, and beef and an abundance of root vegetables lying elegantly, in separate dishes, on the table. Johnson explained he would be roasting them separately in different seasonings at different temperatures. 

They would be layered and coated with different spices. The rutabaga is coated in honey (from the beehive in the Ranch’s garden) and cinnamon for a traditional style while the carrots are tossed in cumin and a coat of olive oil resulting in a flavor not too distant from South Asian influence. “I like to create different layers of flavors and textures,” he said. 

As far as winter dishes go, hearty beef with flavorful sauces, wild game, herb-grilled fish, fragrant stews, and root vegetables rule here at the Ranch. 

Longtime, loyal diners love Johnson’s avant-garde approach to cooking. Savory dishes that are made with local ingredients and emblematic of Santa Barbara’s coastal ranch lifestyle have always been an important part of the Ranch dining experience. Johnson takes it up a notch with new concepts and recipes. 

At 44 years old, Johnson has accomplished what most aspiring chefs dream of during their early years in the kitchen. As executive chef at San Ysidro Ranch, a five-star luxury resort set on an idyllic 500-acre historic ranch surrounded by olive trees, fragrant French lavender and two exquisite restaurants, the seasoned chef has come far in his career in a short time. His low-key manner and thoughtful approach to cooking make it easy to understand his success. He manages with ease a busy culinary team, ensures fresh, quality food in his kitchen and maintains inventory levels for a smooth operation. He has even earned the trust and respect of a boss with a discerning taste in food and wine – that would be Beanie Babies billionaire Ty Warner.

“I really enjoy the constant changes and the fast-paced environment of hospitality,” said Johnson, who in 2014 prepared a five-course dinner at the James Beard House in New York, featuring Meyer lemons grown at the Ranch. “Every day is something new; new flavors, new dishes, new challenges; it’s never boring and never gets old.”

Chef Johnson’s go-to winter dish, ancho chili-braised prime beef short rib with a candied yam purée and roasted garden root vegetables

Johnson, whose first job at age 14 was washing dishes in the kitchen of an Italian restaurant in South Bay, graduated top of his class at Santa Barbara School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality before he spent the summer as an apprentice to some of the best chefs in Europe. The trip culminated in Johnson showcasing at the Masters of Food and Wine.

I was travelling and working across Europe at some amazing, high-end restaurants, and coming back to California, I knew I wanted to be at a high-end resort serving the best local food,” he said. 

By the end of the tour, Johnson was ready to put his skills and knowledge to work.

Johnson held executive chef posts at Windows on the Water in Morro Bay, the Summerwood Winery and Inn in Paso Robles, and Inn at Spanish Bay in Monterey before joining San Ysidro Ranch’s culinary team in 2008. 

At San Ysidro Ranch he oversees the restaurants as well as the culinary execution of catering and events. He heads a team that boasts years of experience preparing fine cuisine in the Ranch’s two modest-sized kitchens. His right hand man, sous chef Martin Chavez, has worked in San Ysidro Ranch’s kitchen for some 30 years. You can enjoy their creations in two distinct venues: The Stonehouse, a fine dining room with white table linens that offers an intimate setting complete with world-class views, a wood-burning fireplace, terrace vistas for stargazing, and regional and classic California cuisine; and Plow & Angel, a convivial pub-like setting and cozy fireplace, that serves upscale comfort food with a carefully curated wine selection.

With his team, Johnson produces imaginative and delicious recipes made from both locally and internationally sourced ingredients. Each dish is an exquisite exercise in taste and presentation, authentic in origin: Oishi oysters (a tide tumbled oyster from the south end of Skagit Bay in north Puget Sound) is a passion fruit mignonette, served with cracked pepper, a touch of Champagne gelée, bits of passion fruit and compressed cucumber.

Japanese yellowtail crudo is served sashimi style with pixie tangerines, purple sango radish, espelette, a red pepper found in France’s Basque country, and shiro dashi vinaigrette, made from kombu dashi, white soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. The dish is delicately garnished with an otherworldly sea grass.

A grilled octopus from Spain is presented with pickled onion, Castelvetrano olives, chorizo, tangerine, wild arugula, grilled Meyer lemon, and Romesco, a savory red sauce typically served with fish in Catalonia and consisting of roasted almonds and tomatoes, olive oil, and garlic.

Those are just the starters. 

Johnson prepares a Mediterranean-inspired Maine lobster cioppino, a seafood stew with Atlantic halibut, Hope Ranch mussels, little neck clams, tiger prawns, calamari roasted tomato and saffron broth, served with grilled ciabatta. 

A classic steak Diane is flambéed tableside and smothered in a brandied and buttery cremini mushroom sauce and served with mashed potatoes and haricots verts. All of the steak sauces are prepared tableside. 

A spiced and glazed duck confit is presented with candied yam purée, shaved cabbage and port glazed cranberries. 

In wintertime, root vegetables rule at the Ranch

For dessert, the chocolate soufflé served á la mode with mint chocolate chip ice cream, made with fresh mint from the garden, is a gourmet experience to remember, especially when enjoyed with a glass of Madeira from Portugal.

Each course pairs perfectly with either a boutique wine or a hand-crafted cocktail recommended by the assiduous and gentlemanly director of restaurants, Franco de Bartolo, or the expertly knowledgeable sommelier Tristan Pitre

This summer, San Ysidro Ranch’s The Stonehouse earned two distinctive recognitions from two internationally renowned and discerning sources: Michelin and Wine Spectator

These accolades come on the heels of what proved to be a challenging time for the resort. 

Johnson and his team held steady when the resort was closed in late 2017 during the Thomas Fire. It opened and then closed again just a few months later in January when the 2018 mudslide caused massive destruction to the resort’s property. After roughly 15 months of closure, the hotel and restaurants reopened only to be hit by another tidal wave: the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The pandemic was different because it led us to rethink operations in a way that makes our staff feel safe and protected in our working environment,” Johnson said, “so that we can continue to provide the highest levels of guest service and an enjoyable culinary experience for our guests. For a lot of the pandemic, that has meant serving guests in their cottages with in-room dining.”

With this latest round of closures, San Ysidro Ranch has introduced a special promotion for hotel guests to savor complimentary meals in their cottages. “Guests can enjoy complimentary breakfast, lunch, and even a three-course dinner fireside up in their cottage, safe and cozy for this unusual holiday season,” he added.

Montecito Journal recently caught up with Johnson at the San Ysidro Ranch kitchen to discuss his carry-on approach to delivering fine cuisine to hungry locals.

Q.What is your go-to winter dish and how is it prepared?

A. I like the smokiness of ancho chilies and they pair really well with short ribs. We’re going to prepare an ancho chili-braised prime beef short rib with a candied yam purée and roasted garden root vegetables. 

Because it’s wintertime you want a lot of warm flavors so you have winter citrus, a candied yam purée because all of the root vegetables are at their best right now. There’s smokiness from the ancho chilies, which is braised into the short ribs and the sauce, which is reduced down. And then you have all of your textures with the roasted vegetables – baby carrots, turnips, rutabaga, and pearl onions. So you’ve got some sweetness, you’ve got a little bitterness from the greens and some sweetness from the citrus as well.

I layer different flavors on different vegetables. For example I’ll add cinnamon and honey to the roasted sweet potatoes. When plating the dish, I spread a layer of purée on the plate. Then I arrange a bed of root vegetables and place the braised beef on top. 

We use the braising liquid reduced down and finish it with a little bit of butter and salt for the sauce. You add the beef to the sauce in the pan and let it glaze for a few minutes. You can use the same sauce to dress it after you plate it. Once the meat is plated and the sauce is added I finish it off with micro herbs garnish. We combine in a bowl a bunch of little micro herbs such as bull’s blood, chervil, parsley, and then we add oranges from our garden as well as blood oranges. Squeeze a little bit of Meyer lemon over it. Mix it all together with a dash of sea salt and add it as a garnish on top of the short ribs. 

Have purées replaced steak sauces?

We do a mixture of both. The purée has a nice texture and there are a lot of flavors you can put in that purée but then the natural juice that you braise the beef in is always good to reduce down for a sauce.

Heinz or homemade?

Homemade! We make all of our sauces from scratch. You just have to label it and make sure you have the right dates on the labels and then you just have to have proper refrigeration. We’ve got all of our temperatures perfected, we keep our walk-ins extremely organized. It’s all about ordering the right amount and prepping the right amount. In normal times we’re constantly turning the product. We do our big batches on Mondays and Thursdays. Before the pandemic we were making fresh sauces every two days. 

What type of wild game do you serve at the Ranch during winter months?

We prepare venison here. We source our venison from New Zealand. Prior to closing we were planning to include it on our Christmas menu. When we reopen we will try to feature dishes with venison, quail, squab, and poussin. During the winter months we serve a variety of wild game. Diners are pretty adventurous when they come to the ranch. I’ve prepared venison a lot of ways – I’ve served it with a mole and butternut squash, for our venison carpaccio we press in coffee, paprika, and cumin. 

Turnips and rutabaga are not common ingredients you see on dinner menus. What are some examples of how you incorporate them into your winter dishes? 

In the winter we use turnips in purées, soups, duck dishes, and even in a dish with citrus cured Arctic char with Tokyo turnips, purple sango radishes, cucumber, petite sea grass, and shiro dashi vinaigrette. I use rutabagas in a mashed rutabaga dish to substitute for potatoes and in purées.

What ingredients interest you the most? 

Meyer lemons. The Ranch started as a citrus farm in the early 1800s with the Stonehouse originally used as the citrus packing plant, so we love to incorporate our heritage by using the Meyer lemons from our own groves on property. We have a lot of ancient olive trees scattered throughout the property as well; they add a great flavor to many popular dishes over the years, and make a tasty snack before dinner is served.

With two restaurants and a catering department, how do you walk the line between giving people a classic San Ysidro Ranch experience and ensuring that each restaurant is unique and doing something new?

The restaurants have similar but separate identities. The Stonehouse is romantic fine dining, while Plow & Angel is cozy and convivial. They’re both classic SYR experiences, places you come for special occasions and on Tuesdays for the Friends & Neighbors filet mignon tacos.

Who were some of your early mentors and what did you learn from them?

I had the pleasure of working with the late American chef Charlie Trotter and his team over the years. He definitely had an impact and influenced the type of chef I have always wanted to become.

What kind of culinary culture do you inspire in SYR’s kitchen? 

We have such a talented team of local chefs from the Santa Barbara area, with the local gardens, it’s easy to be inspired by our surroundings and work together to create a memorable experience for the guests to return time and time again.


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