Rodney’s Steakhouse, located inside Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort in downtown Santa Barbara, doles out some of the finest quality, classic American cuisine in the county. From the moment I stepped into the retro-décor restaurant and heard Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady” faintly playing from behind the bar, I knew I was in for the ultimate eating experience. But it takes more than a well-seasoned slab of beef to make for a memorable dining affair. What exactly is required to make a heap of raw ingredients materialize before the hungry customer as a beautifully constructed work of art? Who is in charge of ensuring that each plate of perfectly grilled filet mignon reaches its consumer seamlessly? Who spends their time painstakingly placing the shi tartar into a flawlessly balanced tower of wonton architecture? For this special edition of On the Menu, I dared to venture where no delicate diner gambles to step foot – the kitchen. From behind the scenes, I examined the intricate process of producing the unbeatable cuisine of Rodney’s Steakhouse.
Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dino
Shivering through the walk-in refrigerator, I began by snooping through cases of raw ingredients. This kitchen proudly uses only the finest materials in order to produce high quality menu items. Filet mignon, ribeye and Del Monico… all prime quality beef, dry-aged for 28 days. This is the most tender beef available and the only cut accepted in this kitchen. That is, of course, other than their infamous Japanese Kobe beef, perfectly marbled to ensure melt-in-your mouth delight. Beside the plethora of supreme beef cuts, I found lamb chops, fresh scallops the size of silver dollars, massive shrimp and much more. The enormous filets of halibut, arriving fresh every morning, were my final find. I filled my purse to the brim and planned my escape route to the parking lot. Well, not quite – but I left the room of Edenic temptation before I got myself into trouble.
As the afternoon progressed, the kitchen became increasingly lively. By 2 p.m., every chef was at his or her station, fully engaged in preparing for the evening to come. I approached Executive Chef Kirk Delong to do some grilling of my own.
“There is so much time [involved] in preparing every single day to set up and break-down the line,” Delong said. “Even if we do one cover a night, my guys are busting their asses. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes before the first [customer] comes through our door.”
Each chef is responsible for preparing any ingredients he or she may need for the entire evening. A team consisting of one executive chef, three sous chefs, one saucier and numerous line chefs work in both Rodney’s kitchen and the conjoining Doubletree banquet kitchen. The sous chefs are in charge of the kitchen when the executive chef, the head honcho, is not present. The saucier masters the sauces for every dish and the work stations for the line chefs produce specific menu items. For example, the pantry chef is in charge of all salads, appetizers, desserts and cold menu items. He preps for the busy night ahead filling the reach-in fridge with back-up supplies of cheese, garnishes, cut vegetables and other ingredients. Another line chef is responsible for all seafood items, sides, soups and sauces. By 4 p.m., he has stockpiled filets of fresh salmon and made over seven different sauces for the evening. Continuing down the line, the supervisor of Rodney’s kitchen cleans and filets masses of meat into personal sized portions. Hours of groundwork go into ensuring that the evening ahead of these chefs runs flawlessly.
Can I See a Menu?
While the chefs were hard at work, I took a moment to review the menu. Each item, while honoring the authentic American steakhouse theme, exhibits elegance and panache.
“Peoples’ perception of a steakhouse is what it is,” Chef Delong said. “I think the menu should upgrade with some nice flare. … It’s not just a normal meat and potatoes place.”
My mouth began to water as he described his favorite menu item: the black truffle macaroni and cheese. With creamy brie, heady gruyere and cheddar cheese, as well as black truffle peelings and white truffle oil, this dish is a far cry from the average bowl of Easy-Mac. The high-quality ingredients and care put into the dish illuminates Rodney’s ability to provide a touch of sophistication to familiarity and comfort.
The chefs here employ what is called a “working menu” to ensure consistency of the product. Each chef on the line knows exactly how the final product should look and taste and what is required to achieve that. Customers at this restaurant can rely on the consistently fabulous food and service. While Rodney’s has a fixed menu to warrant reliable consistency, specials are run Thursdays through Saturdays. This allows for the sous chefs “to show-case their talent and creativity,” as Delong explained. For example, sous chef James Marcinonis ran an evening special of ribeye topped with warm gorgonzola cheese, bacon, shallots and an herb crust one night. On another night, line chef Scott Isaacs constructed a succulent bacon-wrapped filet mignon. The chefs at Rodney’s continuously provide an inventive touch to the menu.
Once the restaurant doors open, the kitchen is set in motion to a whole other degree. “Fire 23!” There are blurs of white as individuals zoom from one end of the line to the other. “Behind!” Bins of steaming spinach are dunked into ice-baths while a pan flares up in orange, just inches from my eyebrows.
“It’s kind of like a zoo – it’s loud and crazy!” Isaacs said, describing the back-of-house chaos.
Each chef must multi-task and schedule each item to finish simultaneously. This requires planning, efficiency and most importantly, speed. With adrenaline pumping through each chef’s veins during the dinner rush, this team thrives in its passionate atmosphere. Constant communication and teamwork are essential in producing dishes in unison. In this bowl of commotion lives a family of fast-paced professionals producing edible art, all while exchanging countless dirty jokes.
Leaving the frenzy of culinary preparations, I decided to finish my tour of the restaurant by tasting their delectable dishes myself. After chilling in the chaotic kitchen, I was shocked by the quiet and serene dining area. The server, sensing my bewilderment, reassured me.
“It’s like a play,” said server Scott Bailey. “When you’re on the floor, it’s like performing. But in the back, there’s crazy chaos that can never be shown.”
Fine food is only one facet of the consumer’s dining experience at Rodney’s Steakhouse. Each table is paired “with a server in regards to personality, language, age, etc. to ensure that each table gets adequate attention,” as Bailey said. Rodney’s provides a culinary event, with server-diner relationship included in the ambiance. The servers are well versed in the art of dining experiences. My waiter reviewed the wine list with me and recommended a Voigner to accompany my order, demonstrating that the food is not the only element of quality in the restaurant.
“We are a dysfunctional family [and] this positively effects the service,” Kim Tucker, a server at Rodney’s, said. “We’re five servers working five days a week. … The best thing about Rodney’s – you want to come to work.”
Rodney’s integrates the work of many teams, the back of the house uniting to produce outstanding food and a lineup of friends delivering supreme service in the front. The two forces merge together as one bevy, communicating seamlessly. Behind the doors of the kitchen, sarcasm and various forms of heckling are delivered with a smile from waiter to chef, and back again. But the groups are far from rivals. They collaborate to accomplish a common goal: to supply the customer with an exceptional dining experience.
After making my appetizing selection, I couldn’t believe my eyes when my server set a tower of Yellowfin tuna-tartar in front of me: a collage of red and green impeccably balanced between layers of wonton and cucumbers. The tanginess of the soy and red onion was perfectly harmonized with avocado and wasabi crème fraiche. This unique use of color and complexity worked perfectly in Rodney’s renovation of a traditional raw seafood starter.
Taking advantage of Rodney’s Steakhouse’s close proximity to the ocean, I ordered the 10-ounce Alaskan Halibut, which was topped with a tangy balsamic tomato concassé and served alongside a ramekin of creamy Meyer lemon beurre blanc. The vibrant red of the jam-like tomato topping contrasted drastically with the pure white of the fish. The appearance of this dish paralleled the flavors exactly. The tart balsamic and tomato concassé was balanced by the mildness of the halibut, completed by a drizzle of the smooth lemon butter sauce. An example of artistic innovation, the dish balanced flavor with aestheticism.
From the extensive dessert menu, I chose Apples à-la Mode, which elevated the classic flavors of apple pie and bubbling caramel. Served in a copper skillet, gooey, sizzling apples were topped with a square of puff pastry straight from the oven, creamy vanilla gelato and swirls of caramel. The dessert began with an American classic and developed it into a chic compilation of flavors and textures.
Rodney’s Steakhouse is a class above the rest, from food to wine and music to service. No humdrum meat and potatoes, the food introduces classic elements of American culture with ingenuity and style. To experience the energy and flavors of Rodney’s Steakhouse, head to 633 Cabrillo St. from 5:30 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.