Like all chef archetypes — flashy celebrity, high-volume workhorse, savvy entrepreneur, laid-back country clubber, and so forth — the resort chef requires a special skill set: able to craft menus for every meal of the day; for venues as varied as swimming pools, high-end restaurants, and hotel rooms; for events as unique as a winemaker dinner, as intimate as a first date, and as sprawling as a wedding buffet. When you apply that formula to Santa Barbara, where tourists are just one slice of a successful economic equation, the resort chef must also dance with the desires of locals, whose steady presence is the only way to make the formula function.
Chef Bruno Lopez understands this equation better than most. After a career born in and blazed through high-end resorts around the world — from San Francisco to Dubai, Beverly Hills to Half Moon Bay, Toronto to Palm Springs — Lopez took over the kitchen of El Encanto late last year. That meant leaving his longtime association with the massive American resort company Ritz-Carlton to join forces with the smaller, more Euro-focused (but also global) brand Belmond.
“I was lucky enough to find this place in November,” Lopez told me as we sat on El Encanto’s iconic deck for lunch, with views from its Riviera setting stretching across town to the Mesa and onward to the Channel Islands. “It’s a little bit like going back to my source.”
Despite moving to the United States in 1986 to work at Le Méridien in San Francisco, Lopez retains the French accent of his upbringing, which started in a suburb outside of Paris and then bumped around that country and even to French Guiana as a “military brat.” He studied cooking in Paris and then embarked on his North American adventure, save for the time he spent opening the Ritz-Carlton in Dubai from 1998 to 2000. “It was still the beginning of Dubai,” he recalled. “The traffic was not an issue yet.”
He spent a number of years at hotels and resorts in Los Angeles, where he also clocked three years as a private chef for the French consulate. Most recently, he ran the Ritz in Rancho Mirage, where he still owns a home and returns frequently to visit his wife.
At El Encanto, he’s providing what guests expect while increasing attention on wellness cuisine, with plenty of vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options. Those were easy enough to add when he relaunched the menu this past February — following two months of pandemic closure to contemplate — since Lopez is proud of using a light hand to flavor dishes delicately.
“My cooking style is not the very traditional, heavy-sauce, French style,” he described. “It’s all about the lightness of the dish, and for all of the senses — it has to look good.” Nor is he into stuffy, explaining, “It has to be elegant, sophisticated, but simple.”
For evidence, he ordered me a series of dishes: the classically smoky, poured-tableside chicken tortilla soup, from a 1963 recipe developed at the Hotel Bel-Air, where Lopez worked for nearly four years; the refreshing glass noodles, with jicama, carrots, scallions, cucumber, bean sprouts, and sesame seeds in a peanut-soy sauce; and the crispy Pacific striped seabass, served atop a parsnip puree with both the horseradish and tzatziki sauce on the side. (I don’t think that the chocolate tacos I ordered for dessert are part of the wellness regime, but they were super fun to eat and relatively healthy, their thin veil of chocolate surrounding moist cake and fresh fruit.)
Enhancing each dish were the selections of sommelier Jordan DeVille, who worked almost two years at The Little Nell in Aspen before hitting ONE65 in San Francisco and then coming south to El Encanto in September 2019. He poured me sips of the Val de Mer brut rosé, whose bubbles cut the mellow spice of the soup, and Babcock’s zesty picpoul blanc, which amped up the Asian spice of the noodles. “We’re the only place right now that has it,” said DeVille of that picpoul.
For the sea bass, he went white and red, showing me the Kumeu River chardonnay from New Zealand, which tasted strikingly of white burgundy and complemented the tzatziki sauce; and then a real red burgundy, the Maison Champy Pernand-Vergelesses Clos de Bully, whose earthy core matched the horseradish with glee.
Good somms usually tell a story, too, so DeVille explained that Louis Pasteur invented pasteurization using wine from Champy, where the winery still showcases some of that old equipment. Like the picpoul, he also believed that El Encanto is the only property to pour that pinot noir in the country. And lest I thought he was popping special bottles for my benefit, DeVille happily announced that all of these wines are available by the glass.
In addition to the daily service, DeVille and Lopez collaborate on a series of winemaker/distiller dinners, featuring visiting wineries such as Brewer-Clifton, Daou, and Domaine Chandon, with a Volcán De Mi Tierra tequila “experience” arriving at the end of June and Napa’s Chateau Montelena coming on August 25. On August 3, DeVille will be pairing selections with the dishes of Chef Carolyn Robb, who cooked for the British Royal Family for 13 years.
“We get out of our à la carte routine,” said Lopez of these multi-course dinners. “It’s great for the team as well to see a different product, different techniques.”
Lopez is also crafting picnic baskets for guests to take on the hotel’s bikes, and he developed a special menu for a sailing package that they offer, featuring oyster, uni, and lobster Cobb salad. He kept that ever-popular Cobb on the main menu and continues to serve the hearty dishes that many require to fulfill their fine-dining dreams, such as roast chicken and tomahawk steak.
“We have to have flexibility,” said Lopez of the balance. “It’s a restaurant that’s part of a resort. You can have fun with dishes, but you still need soup, Caesar salad, and burger on the menu. These things you can’t remove.”
But you strive to make it the best you can, said Lopez, taking as an example the El Encanto Burger, topped with cheddar from Modesto, bacon onion jam, arugula, saffron oil, and house-pickled vegetables on brioche. “It’s not a traditional burger with a sesame bun,” he said. “You still have fun with it.”
800 Alvarado Pl.; (805) 845-5800; elencantohotel.com
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