Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

The Herb Garden of the Late Pioneer Chef Alan Hooker Continues to Delight in a New Collection of His Unusual Dishes, Old Favorites


OJAI — Before there was “California Cuisine,” there was the Ranch House restaurant at Ojai. Here, visionary chef Alan Hooker created innovative dishes that he seasoned with herbs and greens such as sorrel and arugula long before they became trendy. An avid plant collector, Hooker established an herb garden that continues to supply the restaurant’s needs.

The Ranch House opened in 1950 and attracted a wide following with its fresh, original food. The key players were Hooker, who did the cooking; his wife, Helen, who ran the dining room; and fine artist Beatrice Wood, a close friend who painted the chairs for the infant dining place.

In a way, all three came together again this September, even though Hooker died in 1993 at 90. The occasion was a champagne party to launch “California Herb Cookery: From the Ranch House Restaurant” (Edwin House, $20). This book combines recipes from two early cookbooks by Hooker with later recipes from the restaurant. On the cover is a photograph of a ceramic work by Wood titled “The Last Dessert.” The Hookers and Wood are among the 12 people depicted at table.

Helen Hooker, 93, and Wood, 103, came to the party to sign books. Hooker wrote “For Alan” in each copy, as if she were her husband’s deputy. Wood, whose sketches illustrate the cookbook, signed for an hour. This was a demanding task considering her age, the hot day and the crowd that assembled to see her (Wood has been named an Esteemed Living Artist by the Smithsonian Institution).

“California Herb Cookery” is written in the first person, as if Hooker were still alive. Some of his lively views on food were extracted from “Alan Hooker’s New Approach to Cooking,” a spiral-bound book privately published in 1966 and illustrated by Wood. Other passages came from “Herb Cookery,” published in 1971 by 101 Productions.

The new book owes its existence to Mark Lee, a longtime Hooker fan. “I thought this was such a rich treasure of material, it shouldn’t get lost,” says Lee, an Ojai resident. Yet when Lee approached publishers, all said no.

Rather than give up, he said to himself, “Well, why don’t I publish it?” Lee and his wife, Asha, then founded Edwin House. This is their first book.

Hooker had an astonishing palate, Mark Lee says. When Asha Lee, who is from India, cooked for him, he was able to identify each seasoning in her intricate dishes. All food–whether Greek, Turkish, Japanese, Mexican, Vietnamese, classic French or a friend’s soup–was grist for Hooker’s kitchen. “Because I am an ‘untrained’ cook,” he once wrote, “I have been able to embark on a journey of flavors not conditioned by the traditions of ‘haute cuisine.’ ”

Hooker’s ideas were not only original but enduring. The sorrel soup that appeared in “New Approach” was on the menu the day of the book signing, as delicious as ever. The sorrel came from the restaurant garden.

As in Hooker’s day, the kitchen staff made regular forays into the garden to pluck ingredients. Rosemary leaves and tiny red blooms from pineapple sage went onto pats of butter. The polenta that accompanied grilled portobello mushrooms was seasoned with thyme. Savory herb blend, a formula developed by Hooker, perked up a mixed vegetable side dish. Sprigs of green and purple basil decorated the plate.

The restaurant grew out of a vegetarian boarding house operated by the Hookers, with Alan in charge of the kitchen. By the late 1950s, it was apparent they would have to serve meat to keep afloat. Hooker started with three entrees: chicken cacciatore, beef stroganoff and veal scaloppini.

“Since I had never tasted beef stroganoff, I had only my own ideas to go on, and so could not imitate,” he later wrote. He produced a unique version, adding bechamel sauce along with the usual sour cream.

Hooker worked a garden of herbs–bay leaf, thyme, basil, oregano, rosemary and summer savory–into his chicken cacciatore. His scaloppini sauce contains herb salt, savory herb blend and three kinds of wine. Recipes for these three dishes, the herb blend and herb salt are in the book. The salt has been sold at the restaurant since the mid-’60s.

“Alan loved to experiment,” says David Skaggs, an editor of the book and the restaurant’s general manager. “He loved people and he loved to cook.” The restaurant was Hooker’s perfect creative outlet, Skaggs says: “He just blossomed when he walked through the door.”