Competing on the Bravo network's cooking series "Top Chef" may be tough, but cooking for the locals at Morada restaurant in Rancho Santa Fe has been no cake walk for three-time show alumnus Casey Thompson.
The Napa Valley-based Thompson - a top competitor on this season's "Top Chef," filmed in Charleston, S.C. - has been working hard to please the discriminating customers of The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe since quietly taking its executive chef position six months ago.
The Texas native said Rancho Santa Fe families dine at Morada up to three times a week, and meeting their tastes, budgets and children's culinary whims requires a delicate balancing act.
Take, for example, The Royce. The $13 entrée salad (a red leaf lettuce, bacon, avocado and ranch dressing assemblage named for the family who owned the resort from 1953 to 2012) has been the menu's top-seller for decades. Switch up the plating, cut back on the avocado or mess with the dressing and the wrath of the Ranch will descend.
Fortunately, Thompson's Texas charm, creativity in the kitchen and flair for innovation have been winning over customers since word got out about her appointment. Thompson said she has no plans to revamp Morada into a two-star Michelin restaurant.
"What we're doing is meeting the needs of the community and embracing the warm charm of the environment here," she said.
Thompson trained under legendary chef Dean Fearing at the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas. She was running a sushi restaurant the first time she competed on "Top Chef" in 2007, and had just opened another restaurant in Fort Worth when she returned for "Top Chef All-Stars" in 2011. In between, she established a permanent home base in Napa with her partner of nine years, winemaker Michael DeSantis.
A year ago, Jerome Strack, general manager for The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, called Thompson and asked her to do some consulting on his food operations. That morphed into an executive chef job in July. She splits her time - two weeks on, two weeks off - between the Inn and Napa. Strack met Thompson in 2012 when he needed a celebrity chef for his former hotel company and his wife (an avid "Top Chef" fan) suggested "fan favorite" Casey.
Strack said Thompson's greatest strengths are obvious to "Top Chef" watchers.
"She can think on her toes," he said. "Also, she's very creative when it comes to dishes, and her food is pretty. She's also very calm and very much into training her staff, which is what we need."
The Inn is gradually phasing in Thompson's dishes, with her full menu set to debut before Valentine's Day. It will roll out along with new staff uniforms, new dishes and a dining room refresh that will include booth seating, brighter colors and an embrace of the town's equestrian history.
'Top Chef' Season 14
Catch chef Casey Thompson on the current season of "Top Chef" where newbie and veteran contestants are competing for the title in Charleston, South Carolina. The show airs at 9 p.m. Thursdays on Bravo.
The Royce salad hasn't gone anywhere; nor have the comfort foods that regulars love, like meatloaf (now a Wagyu meatball) and fried chicken (now sous-vide-cooked and fried in duck fat). Thompson has supplemented the home-style items with her own Angus burger, Frito pie and brisket tacos, the last a favorite of resort co-owner (and fellow Texan) John Moores.
"Top Chef" watchers can sample some of the dishes Thompson scored with this season, including her grits (paired with shrimp) and her challenge-winning collards.
For those visiting the Inn for special occasions, there's much to enjoy beyond classic comfort foods, like Thompson's olive-oil poached halibut and 72-hour braised short ribs. She still has more surprises up her sleeve and can't say enough about the bounty of local produce at places such as nearby Chino Farm.
"I would say my food is comfort California cuisine with elevated technique and presented in a beautiful way," she said. "The California style means we have accessibility to so many beautiful proteins, produce and the sea. We're really honoring sustainability and being a good chef to the community and the earth."
Morada, The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe
Address: 5951 Linea del Cielo, Rancho Santa Fe