Zachary Ladwig, executive chef at The Inn at Dos Brisas, Texas’ only Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star restaurant, recently ventured to The Little Nell Culinary Fest to kick off summer in Aspen with a lineup of standout chefs (including Josh Holt from Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa in San Diego) from Relais & Châteaux properties.
Ladwig — who has worked at fine-dining spots like The Broadmoor’s Penrose Room in Colorado Springs and now-shuttered restaurants Bouley and Gordon Ramsay at the London in New York — won over festival attendees at the first dinner with a succulent Duclair duck sweetened with preserved peaches and ginger.
It’s not surprising that a chef located about an hour outside of Houston would be adept at cooking up protein, but he revealed that he likes making vegetables the stars on his plate. Ladwig also shared what to expect when the nine-room Inn at Dos Brisas reopens (it’s temporarily closed because of the pandemic), along with the cookbooks he’s reading right now and his go-to comfort food.
Were you able to do anything fun while you were in Aspen?
I did get to go fly fishing one morning, which was a ton of fun. I caught a bunch of fish. That’s something that I’ve never had the opportunity to do before. The guide was great, patient, helpful.
How would you describe your food at The Inn of Dos Brisas?
I think our food is pretty garden-y. It’s pretty farm-y. We have 36 acres of USDA-certified organic gardens and greenhouses, so our cooking is decidedly market-centric, which I think is great. It’s constantly evolving. I would say it’s a very refined modern European technique.
What do you like to eat at home?
I have a pretty large garden in my backyard, so kind of the ethos and idea of Dos Brisas — very centralized, very local, very farm fresh — is how I like to eat at home.
I have my own bronze pasta extruder, so I will often make nice handmade pastas at home. The extruder can do 15 to 20 pounds of pasta in an hour. It’s like something that should be at a restaurant. I have a 5-year-old little boy, and at least once a week we will set up the extruder and make something for ourselves from that.
Is pasta your go-to comfort food?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, everybody loves pasta. When I’m at home, I’ll typically buy flour from Barton Springs Mill, which is outside of Austin, and there are a couple of varieties of flour that I’m particular to but that are nice, hardy Texas grains. It’s fun to do.
I’ve always liked making pasta, but during the pandemic, I dove into it to learn a little bit more about it and refined and tweaked the technique for it.
Speaking of the pandemic, do you think that it changed diners’ tastes? Do you think that they’re looking for something else when they’re dining out?
I would say yes. I think one good thing to come out of the pandemic is a lot of people had to get back to cooking at home and learning how to cook and relearning how to cook.
I have some friends that have CSAs [or community-supported agriculture, a group whose members regularly receive produce from a farm] and farms, and participation in CSAs has just really, really increased because people are cooking at home. And that’s a great thing.
I think when people go out now, they are trying to recapture that experience. I think that they have maybe even a little bit higher of an expectation — they look forward to it so much more.
Pre-pandemic, a lot of people were dining out, and it was just a regular part of life. They’d go out once, twice, three times a week and that gets taken away. So when you can have it again, it becomes so much more special, so much more to look forward to.
When you are not cooking, what kind of activities do you like to do?
I like to spend a lot of time with my son. I play a lot of disc golf. I like to read a lot — I have a pretty incredible cookbook collection that always keeps me going and inspired.
During part of the pandemic, I helped out at Dunton Hot Springs in Colorado, so I’ve gotten to spend a lot of time outside hiking, foraging and cooking in a very vastly different region from what I when I cook in Texas. It’s been super fun. The ingredients are different, the seasonality with the ingredients is different, so it keeps me open-minded. It’s kind of like being a young cook again and really getting to see the seasons.
This week in Colorado a lot of the first stone fruits are starting to come in — cherries and apricots — whereas in Texas that was almost two months ago. It forces you to think differently about different times of the year.
I’m standing out in the driveway beneath the house that I’m staying at and there’s tons of wild yarrow, and last week we harvested all these spruce tips and little pine buds to preserve for the fall. It’s exciting because you may see some similar ingredients, but you see different timing and you can pair them with other things that are coming along at the same time.
What are you reading right now?
I think Simon Rogan’s The Cookbook is pretty incredible. I’ve been a big fan of the new French Laundry cookbook [The French Laundry, Per Se] because you can see the evolution from the original one, yet the integrity of what they’ve always done is so much at the forefront.
The Wizard’s Cookbook by Ronny Emborg is always a good go-to. I have the entire collection of Robert Laffont cookbooks [called Les Recettes Originales] from the early ’80s — that’s with all the two- and three-Michelin-star French chefs. They are incredible to look at and read through because even though a lot of that cooking was done 30, approaching 40, years ago, it’s still as incredibly relevant now as it was then.
What are your long-term plans at The Inn at Dos Brisas once it reopens?
I would like to continue developing our own brand of gardening Texas cooking. Once again, staying on that highly vegetable, produce-forward slant. That’s something that we’re a little bit known for.
Even though we are in Texas and we serve beautiful beef, really the vegetables that come out of the garden are the star of our show, and it’s how we utilize them that makes it unique.
What’s a dish there that’s a must?
We raise our own Freedom Ranger chickens and roast them on a bed of hay herbs in a Dutch oven that’s enclosed with sourdough bread dough. It’s become one of our standbys. It’s a beautiful dish.
The technique for it was something that I learned when I worked for David Bouley, and it’s something that we’ve perfected at Dos Brisas. The chickens are raised onsite, they’re lightly brined and then we butter them and lay them in that Dutch oven that’s lined with hay that’s savory and thyme. Then we seal the lid with sourdough bread dough and roast it for about 45 minutes.
The birds are incredibly flavorful, tender and juicy, and they pick up a lot of the sweetness from the grass and the herbaceousness from the herbs. We tend to garnish it vegetable-wise with whatever is seasonal. Midsummer we do lots of summer squashes and squash blossoms, and going into the fall and winter months, it’ll be sunchokes and apples or preserved peaches from the summer.
What makes The Inn at Dos Brisas special?
I think what makes it special is that it’s remote, but it’s not remote. Because of the size of the ranch, you’re on your own kind of compound almost. With 330 acres but only nine guest rooms, the only time throughout the day you may see another guest is at dinner. It gives you an opportunity to unplug, relax and reset in a very quiet tranquil setting.
I think the ranch has a very unique natural beauty that I didn’t understand Texas had before I had come to Texas 10 years ago. I think that’s really, really special.