It might take a while to tally the awards earned by chef Zachary Ladwig’s kitchens. Michelin Stars, Forbes Five Stars—the honors are testament to his culinary might.
Yet the recently appointed executive chef for Alila Ventana Big Sur has a little secret. For dinner guests at the hotel’s fabled Sur House, he might interpret a simple squash bisque as a composition of compressed apple and duck confit, dress filleted fish with sorrel cream and even elevate the language on his menu–”herbes,” for example. However, this finest of fine dining chefs can be down to earth.
“Honestly, I really love Kraft macaroni and cheese,” he admits.
Don’t expect something so basic when Ladwig introduces the restaurant’s revised menu later this month. The chef offers few clues other than that he plans to add another course to the prix fixe lineup and hone the focus on regional, sustainable ingredients. He does promise an ethic of simplicity.
“We plan to rotate out offerings quite frequently, with the idea being to constantly evolve and search for the best products and ingredients, to prepare them very simply and purely–highlight them for what they are,” Ladwig says.
Through two decades at some of the finest restaurants in the nation, Ladwig has earned a reputation as a master of technique. As skilled as he is with European finesse, however, he is not afraid to play with what’s trending. So “very simply” does not just mean allowing good ingredients to speak solely for themselves.
Cramming all of a chef’s concepts into one descriptive bag is always a little problematic. Ladwig’s style might best be gathered under a “garden-centric” label. In other words, he expects to take advantage of the region and—in particular—the Ventana property.
“A peach that comes from five miles down the road always tastes to me better than a peach from 500 miles down the road,” the chef explains. “When we develop dishes, we begin with the vegetable and work backwards to create a dish, rather than focusing on a technique or another component.”
Before coming to Alila Ventana Big Sur, Ladwig was a fixture at two highly decorated properties of the luxury Relais & Châteaux hotel line, Dunton Hot Springs and Inn at Dos Brisas. His career began some 20 years earlier at the Michelin-starred Bouley Restaurant in New York. In between, he has teamed with chefs like Hans Schadler and Gordon Ramsey.
“I had spent 10 years in one kitchen, so I became very comfortable,” Ladwig says. “That is why this is a particularly positive change. I think it’s always great to be outside of your comfort zone to push creativity and get to learn new ways to work.”
One culinary impulse is unlikely to change. Ladwig has always tried to keep a version of whole roasted chicken on his menus. While his most recent iteration placed the bird on a bed of hay and herbs, if he adds it at Sur House, Ladwig says chicken may rest on coastal grasses, adding he’ll be able to forage wild herbs.
All that said, the chef places the kitchen behind other aspects when it comes to defining a rewarding dining experience. Great company and warm, genuine service are the finishing touches.
Ladwig’s first menu at Ventana is currently undergoing its own finishing touches. It rolls out at the end of the month. That leaves the chef little time to indulge in mac and cheese.
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