Ride Horseback to Breakfast and Learn the Art of Cowboy Cooking at This California BBQ Bootcamp

The Alisal Ranch is on a mission to prove that California cuisine goes far beyond avocado toast and green juice. 

Alisal Ranch BBQ smoked meats, California
Photo: Sara Range/Courtesy of Alisal Ranch

On a balmy October weekend, I made my way from Los Angeles to the ranch, which sits nestled in Central California's golden hills, just a few miles off the Pacific Coast. The two-hour drive was all in the name of pretending to be both a cowgirl and pitmaster for the hotel's famed BBQ Bootcamp.

Twice a year, the 10,000-acre ranch plays host to BBQ greats, who are all on hand to teach wannabes like me how to level up our games. Its 2021 BBQ Bootcamp, running from April 30 to May 2, is looking like it will be its biggest one yet.

"It's the ranches or the resorts or the ranch resort, 75th anniversary," Chef Anthony Endy explains. "So we're going to make the spring camp a big to-do."

Though honestly, I'm unsure how they can make it any more epic than the weekend I experienced this fall.

Driving into the Alisal is like driving into a tiny Wild West town. Surrounded by horses and hills and petite homestead-style cottages, the ranch's entrance is perfectly indicative of the escape you're about to have from the realities around.

Getting out of the car on BBQ weekend, I was smacked with the fresh scent of hay and horse fur mixed with spices and smoke that immediately lured me toward the back paddocks where the BBQ experience was already playing out.

Alisal Ranch BBQ smoker, California
Sara Range/Courtesy of Alisal Ranch

There, my travel partner and I sat at our designated table, which was placed a solid six feet from others for social distancing. On the tables we found our BBQ Bootcamp workbooks for the weekend. We quickly began drooling just looking at the ingredients on each page, before finally looking up to see cuts of meat that would make a caveman proud.

We sat down to listen to in-depth seminars from chefs like Ben Ford (author of "Taming the Feast") Paula Disbrowe (author of "Thank you for Smoking"), and Valerie Gordon (author of "Sweet"). Each shared their unique tips and insights to smoking, grilling, and BBQing everything from tomahawk steaks to spiny lobsters, Japanese sweet potatoes, and even how to BBQ a cheesecake. With each new move, the hungry crowd cheered together, scribbling each recipe into our workbooks in the hopes we can recreate these masterpieces at home.

"Barbecue is a social gathering, which we're trying to manage during these times, but barbecue is really a coming together over good food," Endy says. "I don't just barbecue tri-tip or a brisket just for myself, it's meant to be shared, and it's meant to be enjoyed. I hope everyone feels it at BBQ Bootcamp because it's about learning, and it's about savoring everything and enjoying."

Alisal Ranch BBQ postmaster, California
Sara Range/Courtesy of Alisal Ranch

The lessons, however, are just the beginning of the ranch experience over BBQ Bootcamp. Guests can also spend their days in spice-blending seminars, or hiking the expansive lands around the resort, heading out to its stunning lake for a romantic canoe ride, or take to horseback for a leisurely ride through the hills. Those lucky enough to snag a spot on the early morning rides will even be treated to a cowboy griddle breakfast at the halfway mark.

"If you're a horseback rider, I highly recommend the breakfast ride," Endy says. "Horseback riding up to the breakfast is pretty unique. When you ride your horse up to the Adobe you kind of get transformed. You feel like in the middle of nowhere. Then, you stumble upon an Adobe where breakfast is being served. That's always a favorite among myself and guests."

There is, however, one major caveat to BBQ Bootcamp — space is extremely limited. While this is a good thing for the students onhand, who are lucky enough to receive the undivided attention of the chef instructors, it's a bummer for those who may miss out. But, that doesn't mean those who can't make the weekend have to forgo BBQ delicacies completely.

"Me and my team are constantly working with the local farmers," Endy says of the culinary team's work, which you can taste in its dining facilities no matter when you choose to stay. "We're right in the heart of agriculture here in the Central Coast. It makes the most sense to cook with what's nearby. It's better for the environment, better tasting, and it's fresher. That's why I'm so grateful to be where I am."

Registration is now open for those interested in joining the 2021 BBQ Bootcamp. Rates begin at $1,095 for the three-day, two-night experience. It includes studio accommodation, all meals, including special dinners with local celebrity chefs, winemakers, and brewmasters, workshops on grilling methods and equipment, BBQ instruction, spice blending, the keepsake booklet for BBQ notes and recipes, breakfast ride to the historic Adobe by hay wagon, and more. See all the details and more on what to expect from the BBQ experiences here.

Stacey Leasca is a journalist, photographer, and media professor. Send tips and follow her on Instagram now.

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