In early 2017, the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe announced with great fanfare the hiring of “Top Chef” alumna Casey Thompson as the executive chef who would drive the long-term culinary future of its restaurant, Morada.
The Texas-bred chef retrained the Morada staff, consulted on the renovation of the restaurant’s dining room and rolled out a Southern-inspired menu that fall. But the marriage didn’t last. In splitting her time between Rancho Santa Fe and her home in Napa, Thompson wasn’t able to manage the restaurant in the hands-on way that it needed. By fall 2017, she was gone.
For the next six months, Morada went rudderless without a head chef. Then in spring 2018, resort general manager Jerome Strack brought in Chris House as Morada’s new executive chef. Over the past year, the veteran chef has been collaborating closely with the resort’s whiskey educator Dutch House — who shares the same last name but is no relation — to create menu and cocktail collaborations that they hope will outshine the bright but short-lived star power of the Inn’s former chef.
Both men are military veterans who came to the Inn with more than 25 years of experience in their respective fields and both live and breathe the work they do night and day. Chris House, 59, of Encinitas, describes food as his first, last and only mistress, saying: “Cooking is like a jealous girlfriend. I can’t have anyone else.”
And Dutch House, 47, of Bankers Hill, spends every waking moment dreaming up new cocktail recipes and for the resort’s The Huntsman Whiskey Bar.
“This is my singular passion,” Dutch said. “When I’m not at work, this is what I’m doing. This is the most communal thing that we do in the human experience, and it’s what I live for.”
Chris had been working as a restaurant consultant in Singapore when he visited his uncle in Encinitas last spring and fell in love with the area. On a whim, he sent his resume to the Inn, and within a day, he was brought in for a cooking audition. He arrived with an impressive background.
Chris grew up cooking lobsters and clams in a Maine fishing village, and after a few career dead-ends, he attended culinary school in San Francisco in the mid-1980s. He spent seven years in Las Vegas as an opening chef for the Bellagio, Aladdin and MGM Grant hotels, then worked at the Fairmount and Westin resorts in Scottsdale before heading overseas to the Hilton Guam, and other points in the Far East.
After overseeing huge teams of cooks at 5,000-room hotels, Chris said it has been refreshing to get back in the kitchen with the Inn’s 15-member culinary crew. He has enjoyed hand-selecting produce at nearby Chino Farms, building relationships with seafood distributors in Baja, San Diego and Hawaii and trying out local restaurants like Addison and The Lion’s Share. He has created a “fiercely seasonal” new menu of California comfort food that’s lighter in calories, produce-forward and internationally inspired, but still featuring some of the “classic” Inn dishes that loyal locals demand, like the Royce red-leaf lettuce salad.
Dutch, with 26 years of experience behind the bar, joined the Inn staff four years ago and became its whiskey educator/mixologist when The Huntsman Whiskey Bar opened in 2016. The fox hunting-themed bar serves 150 varieties of whiskey from 22 states and eight countries. But the real magic, Dutch says, is in the pre-Prohibition-style brown cocktails that he barrel-ages and box-smokes in-house.
Dutch introduces 15 new bar cocktails and six new barrel-aged cocktails every three months, with whimsical names like A Tart Tasting the Blues (made with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, maple-smoked blueberries and lavender bitters) or Sandia & the Señorita (a watermelon jalapeño margarita). But his signature drink is the buttery Vieux Carre, made with Bulleit Rye and housemade blackstrap bitters aged four weeks in a white oak barrel.
The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe has always attracted tourists and regulars who walk over from their homes in the Ranch. But the Houses’ goal is to also attract new customers from Del Mar, Encinitas, Escondido and other surrounding neighborhoods.
“We’re ready to show everyone what we’ve got,” Chris said.
Morada and Huntsman Whiskey Bar
Where: The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, 5951 Linea Del Cielo, Rancho Santa Fe
Phone: (858) 381-8289