Chef Budi Kazali

Ballard and Beyond

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to spend half of your childhood on the Indonesian island of Java—one of the most densely populated places in the world—and the rest amid the fineries of the quaint California “Riviera” that is Santa Barbara, Chef Budi Kazali of the Restaurant at the Ballard Inn can explain it to you with just one sizzling, slow-braised bite.

Blending a touch of the exotic into classic French-style dishes—perhaps a tamarind broth with his black cod, a pasilla crème fraîche with crispy fritters, or a teriyaki balsamic demi-glaze with a rack of lamb—Budi lives and breathes food and is naturally fluent in the art and finesse of Asian-fusion cuisine.

At the age of 12, he and his parents left Indonesia to join his older siblings in Santa Barbara, where the family continues to operate a number of hotels. From a young age, hospitality and minding the “front of house” was a deeply instilled instinct. But in the background, intertwined with every memory and experience of his formative years, were the savory, spicy smells of his mother’s cooking. And though his parents had moved to California so that Budi could pursue any professional path he wished, it was that scent of those spices that he chose to follow.

“I just love food. I think that’s how I got into it,” Budi recalls, adding that at the time, his parents were not thrilled about his choice: “Being a cook was not a glorious job—not until the Food Network made it a glorious job. Now a lot of people want to be a chef.”

Glory or not, after earning a degree in economics, he took off to San Francisco and the California Culinary Academy to follow his heart, and stomach. After getting the requisite solid foundation in French-style cooking classes, his real education began in a string of high-profile restaurant jobs including at La Folie, one of the top French restaurants in San Francisco; Campton Place, a ritzy hotel restaurant; Restaurant Gary Danko; Ozumo, a French-Japanese restaurant; and, in Boston, at Ambrosia and Blue Ginger.

Budi says that during this time, he started to become interested in the mixing of Asian and French cuisines, which was not uncommon in San Francisco restaurants due to the large Asian community there. “Being Asian, I know the spices already,” he says. But it wasn’t until he worked with a like-minded chef at Blue Ginger in Boston that he really began to pursue the East-West culinary style.

“What I like about it is that you can be really creative about your food. I’m not stuck in doing just French food, and I’m not stuck in doing just Asian food. I can use couscous one week and then I can use rice another week. There’s nothing that says ‘you can’t do this.’”

In 2004, he finally had truly free rein to explore cross-cultural cooking when he and his wife, Chris, moved to the tiny town of Ballard to take over the Ballard Inn and the inn’s restaurant. And so it is that from this tiny outpost made up of two businesses, one little red schoolhouse and three churches tucked amid Western horse ranches and vineyards, visitors find big-city fine dining that probes the rich and fragrant borderland between Asian and French cuisines.

And perhaps that’s not such a surprise, given the fact that Ballard, founded in 1880 around a Wells Fargo stage stop, has always been something of a way station between the East and the Wild West. True to that background as much as to his own multi-cultural life and education, the warm and affable Budi opens his doors to travelers from near and far, presenting them with a menu that is somehow both intriguingly exotic and familiar; both surprising and self-evident.

His popular Red Roast Kurobuta Pork Belly with Napa Cabbage Fondue is a prime example. Based on a classic, time-tested pairing—pork with cabbage—it takes a delicious new turn in Budi’s hands: He infuses a traditional Chinese recipe for roasted pork with a dash of novelty by adding a French-style fondue (made by cooking the cabbage in its own juices and butter) and an Asian pear salad.

“When I create my dishes they’re not something completely crazy, completely random,” he says of his version of fusion. “I don’t try to invent the wheel; I just try to follow it.”

And with just one bite of that rich, delightful, utterly decadent concoction, we know we will follow right along wherever that wheel leads him next.

Jamie Relth is a freelance writer based on the Central Coast. She covers food, wine, travel and the Central Coast lifestyle for a number of publications.

Photo by Fran Collin.

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