As the rest of California gets used to being open in these hopefully waning days of COVID-19, the Ojai Valley Inn continues to enjoy a comfortable style of outdoor-oriented hospitality that was merely sharpened during the pandemic. The 2019 opening of The Farmhouse, a $20 million, culinary-focused event center, turned out to be epic timing, as the property’s large outdoor spaces and breezy indoors provided the ability to host meals and classes when most everywhere else was locked down.
I got my own taste of the luxury-level meals right before COVID kicked off in early 2020, and I’ve watched the lineup of visiting chefs grow more impressive over the last year. That included a residency by Christopher Kostow of Meadowood in Napa, who headed south when his kitchen fell victim to the Glass Fire last September, and continues into the summer with Frasca’s Bobby Stuckey on July 8, Bell’s Daisy Ryan on August 10, and Golden Door’s Greg Frey Jr. on August 19, among more than a dozen other classes and meals.
Next up is a return visit for Neal Fraser, the superstar chef from Los Angeles best known for Redbird and the Vibiana event space in downtown Los Angeles. On the Fourth of July, he’ll be pairing dishes with WhistlePig Rye Whiskey, such as sauteed skate in a raisin caper emulsion with the Inn’s private barrel of 10-year-old rye and boar tenderloin in violet mustard with a 12-year rye.“It won’t be hamburgers and hot dogs,” promised Fraser when we spoke on the phone a couple of weeks ago as he was still developing the menu with his chef de cuisine, Jason Bowlin. “We’ll do a natural progression of food, and of how strong the cocktails are as well. We do a lot of cocktails at Redbird, a lot of spirit dinners. It’s always surprising. It goes very well with food, more so than you would think.”
Born and raised in the Hollywood Hills, in the home where his mother still lives, Fraser’s career started out of desperation, as he suddenly needed a job for personal reasons. With no experience, he walked into Laurel Canyon’s Caioti, where the late chef Ed LaDou — who crafted the first pizzas for both Spago and California Pizza Kitchen — said Fraser could work if he started at that moment.
He did, following up with a job at Wolfgang Puck’s Eureka Brewery, school at the Culinary Institute of America, and then work in kitchens all around L.A. The restaurants Grace and BLD won Fraser — and his Tennessee-raised wife, Amy Knoll Fraser — more acclaim, but the 2015 opening of Redbird cemented their status.
Dealing with COVID was “really hard” for Fraser’s restaurants, which shifted to serving more than 1,000 daily meals to the homeless for a few months. “The second time around, we just fired everybody,” said Fraser of the November 2020 shutdown orders. “We didn’t know how long it would be. We thought it might be six months.”
Today, the challenge is hiring. “It’s been a real struggle to staff up and get people back into the mix,” said Fraser, who said many of his longtime employees “just burned out” during COVID. “You get all kinds of people, and you unfortunately get customers who are disrespectful. That just wore on people. Going to work to feed people dinner doesn’t seem so essential when the other side could potentially be death. It was hard.”
The Ojai Valley Inn became a regular escape for Fraser. “It’s such a great venue, and it flows so well inside and out. There is a lot of space. Even pre-COVID, we weren’t stacking 200 people into a small room,” he said. “It’s nice to do a dinner there, wake up and go to the spa and pool, and not have to go back to the world.”
Fraser’s connections to points north don’t stop at Ojai, as he’s also cooked guest dinners at the Alisal Resort in Solvang and was tight with the late, great Au Bon Climat winemaker Jim Clendenen, who passed away last month. “He was really the only winemaker I was friendly with in my whole career,” said Fraser. “I just haven’t really bonded with winemakers, and Jim was definitely one that I’ve spent a lot of time with. I really enjoyed him supporting my causes, and I enjoyed supporting his causes, oftentimes when he called me at the 11th hour.”
Once, while staying at Clendenen’s ranch in Los Alamos, Fraser accidentally let the winemaker’s pet baby deer out of its pen. “I had to chase it through the vineyard with these kids who were horrified that we were gonna lose the deer,” he laughed. “But we put her back in the cage, and nobody ever knew.”
Fraser and his wife frequently consider opening a restaurant or cooking school up this way. “We’ve fallen in love with Ojai. Having a business in L.A., it feels far away, but it’s still very close,” said Fraser. “For someone who works a lot and doesn’t get away, it’s nice to drive an hour and 20 minutes and feel like you’ve landed on a different planet, especially during COVID, when things were so dystopic in L.A. And especially in downtown L.A., where 95 percent of the businesses were working remotely. It was abandoned.”
The Ojai Valley Inn’s layout and staff made everything all the more comfortable. “There’s always that balance between too much and too little in the middle of COVID,” said Fraser of how The Farmhouse walked that line. “We want to provide a place for people and their sense of well-being, and it was very easy for them to do. It wasn’t a big transition.”
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