Blackbird restaurant, cornerstone of the food and beverage lineup at Santa Barbara’s Hotel Californian, is run by a chef who not only obsesses over every ingredient and detail, he’s also well acquainted with two of the world’s most famous ghosts.
More on the ghosts in a minute. First, let’s talk food.
He’s a focused man.
“Every detail matters, otherwise it’s disrespectful to our guests,” he told your Let’s Go Eat crew.
“I make everything as if my entire career will be judged by that one dish.”
The menu at Blackbird is “hyper-seasonal,” Watson explained, adding that it features a lot of local seafood.
“Almost every day I’m at the Santa Barbara Fish Market,” he added, “and we order our seafood products almost exclusively from there.”
During a recent Let’s Go Eat Team visit to Blackbird, the fish entrees were indeed excellent, and we’re definitely hooked on one of the nonfish specials from that night, the sous-vide short rib. If you order that, make sure you bring your own team because it’s a full pound of meat.
On the produce side, Watson shared, “One of the things I love is getting a phone call from a local farmer saying he’s got 15 pounds of something interesting, do I want it? The answer is yes!
“I maybe don’t know what I’m going to do with it, because I didn’t know I was going to have it until 15 seconds ago, but I’ll think of something.”
And he’s had 37 years experience in restaurant kitchens to refine that idea list.
Watson started his career at age 14 washing dishes as a summer job, and he was hooked.
“The energy in a kitchen, there’s nothing like it,” he said. “It’s addictive.”
After graduating from the University of Arizona in Tucson and the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, and even during high school, he’s traveled the world, working at restaurants from Africa to Japan to France.
His first executive chef gig was at the The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain in Tucson.
“I remember the first day on the job, driving up to the hotel, wondering what did I just get myself into,” Watson said, smiling at the memory.
Since then he’s worked at a succession of well-known hotels, including (ghost story time!) the famous Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, which served as Stephen King’s inspiration for The Shining.
“As a new chef, they put you up in the hotel until you can get settled” Watson related. “The first night it’s late and after a long day I’m trying to relax, get to bed, and there are these kids playing in the hallway outside my room.
“I’m thinking, what kind of poor parenting is going on that kids are in the hallway in the middle of the night?”
The next morning he went to the front desk to see about changing rooms. The clerk asked what the problem was and he described the noise.
“The concierge looked at me funny and said, ‘Oh, you heard the girls didn’t you,’” Watson said (meaning, the ghost twins depicted in The Shining).
“I’m not saying I think the hotel is haunted,” Watson said, laughing. “I’m telling you it’s 100% truly and factually haunted.”
Back on the earthly plane, Watson has assembled a solid team at the Hotel Californian, including chef de cuisine Joshua Legrand, executive pastry chef Erika Dizon and well-known mixologist Devon Espinosa.
And the team philosophy is simple.
“We treat our guests like family, because you cook differently for family, with more passion,” Watson said. “And passion translates into flavor.
“Passion makes the food just sing, and I like food that sings.”
That’s a radio station we could stay tuned to for a long time.
Stop by on a Wednesday night, when Blackbird serves only to bar guests (not on the menu or advertised anywhere) Watson’s buttermilk fried chicken sandwich with house made slaw, hot sauce and pickles.
“Just to have fun,” Watson said.
When You Go
Blackbird, in the Hotel Californian, at 36 State St. in Santa Barbara is open from 5 p.m. to close Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations are available at 805.882.0135.
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