Ryan was in his early 20’s, working every station at the San Ysidro Ranch in Santa Barbara, when he came to the sudden realization he’d found his path in life. One night he glanced over at the Chef de Cuisine, standing at the pass in his whites, and just knew. What I didn’t discover until last week was that his epiphany flowed, in great part, from the style of cooking he was learning at the time which celebrated classic Latino flavors “that just got into my head, and really have never gone away."
Through his years at Redd, The French Laundry, and Per Se, which brought an intimate understanding of European (especially French) cuisine, he found himself returning again and again to that place where Mexico and California meet: a land of layered heat, spices that shimmer, fat, rich, sharp flavors that burst in the mouth, a confirmation of life through food. It hasn’t hurt that for the past 20 years he’s cooked alongside some very talented Mexican chefs who have generously shared influences and techniques. We got onto the topic of what guides our food paths when I shot these images of the newest version of the Barndiva Artisan, an instant sell out in the bistro last week.
The Artisan has been with us, in one form or another, since we opened in 2004 with “The Works.” Lukka reminds me it featured four obscure handmade cheeses (long before the word “artisan” caught fire and, some would argue, imploded), charcuterie by Paul Bertoli (his early Fra' Mani days) and breads by Della Fattoria(before they stopped delivering this far north). It’s never left the menu, traveling through dozens of iterations since, with terrines and pâtés and condiments that pulled their inspiration from across the European continent. For some reason no one here can parse (but makes us crazy happy) this is the first time we’ve had a Mexican Grandmother as our muse.
What Ryan and Andrew have done is take a classic duck confit (one of three alternative proteins you can order), and put a carnitas sizzle in it. Served on the bone, you pull off pieces, moo shu style, building each mouthful on a handmade tortilla from a board heaped with gorgeous pico de gallo, slivers of vinegary purple onions, sweet hot red peppers, a stack of baby bib lettuce, a dollop of crème frâiche, fresh limes and cilantro. A velvety smooth guacamole with an intriguing, layered heat plays the role of master of ceremonies, pulling all these brilliantly disparate flavors together. It's a riff on a family recipe which came to us from Chef Poncho's Abuelita Carmen and carries the indelible flavorprint of tomatillos, cucumber, jalapeños, fresh lemon and a mortar full of dark red and brown spices. (Sorry, I am sworn to secrecy). Veronica's tortillas are just the right size and weight, thick and moist, with crispy edges, the better to catch all the mingling sauces.
There's a good reason we will always have an Artisan on the menu at Barndiva... it embodies our general philosophy of food and hospitality. Give us a big wood board overflowing with delicious bites, a bottle of great wine to be shared in a languorous green shade pervasive with the smell of roses, and we are happy. All joy is temporary. Isn’t that the reason they invented summer?
The new Latino inspired Artisan comes with a choice of three proteins - duck carnitas, chimichurri steak, chicken asado. Chef Wycoff is happy to send vegetarian Artisans out as well, upon request.