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Open-Pit Master Frank Ostini Talks Flame Grilling

TALKING ABOUT GOOD FOOD WITH FRANK OSTINI isn’t a very difficult thing to do. Squeezing a few minutes in on the phone for an interviewsince the culinary media, bloggers and food paparazzi caught onto his restaurant serving as the true main character in the film Sideways-well, that’s a different story. Let’s just say he’s a busy man. Yet, it’s rightly deserved.

Owner of the Hitching Post and Hitching Post II in California’s Santa Barbara County, the Ostini family cook simple yet elegant fare the way man was intended to cook-over an open, roaring fire. To boot, Ostini has nearly three decades of winemaking in the Central Coast region under his belt. And with all this-all the fussing and posturing surrounding the culinary scene in the last few years-you might presume he’d be another highfalutin’, pretentious chef-owner who subscribes to the diva-esque “my way or the highway” style of force-fed restaurateuring. Yet this couldn’t be further from reality.

Having inherited the first Hitching Post from his father, a carpenter who bought the business with no prior restaurant experience, Ostini and his brother Bill run both outposts like extended dining rooms to their homes. Ostini warmly refers to “the glow” of their respective eateries, or, how the collective vibe draws in fussy eaters and spits out sublimely happy (and more often than not, buzzed) customers for life who are asked to check their foodie pretension at the door.

We chatted with Ostini as he was driving up the 101, a massive 8-footlong grill swinging behind his truck, having just cooked lamb belly and “pork face” tacos for 400 people at a wine dinner. We grilled (pardon the pun) this aloha-emitting fan of Hawaiian cuisine on barbecue trends and how, as the post-Sideways spotlight seems to still shine, he keeps it real after 1,000 articles, coverage on every major TV news outlet and the circulation of countless pictures depicting just about everything he’s ever plated.

Why the portable grill, you ask? Ostini has just returned from a BBQ Boot Camp at the Alisal Guest Ranch, where he taught 50 people everything they need to know about open-flame cooking during two days of seminars, demos and tastings. In September, Ostini will cook at Wolfgang Puck’s American Food & Wine Festival at Universal Studios. At least once a month, Ostini heads out on the open road to share his knowledge of fire grilling.

“In the old days, it was hard to get people to come to the restaurant. So you did outreach and events, in hopes that if attendees liked what you made, they would visit the restaurant,” Ostini shares. “But since Sideways, our revenue is up 40 percent. We don’t really need to do it anymore. But people still want to see us; to eat our food and drink our wine. We love getting out there.”

A few years back, Ostini flew to Maui to demonstrate his mastery at the Kapalua Wine & Food Festival. He shipped ahead of time a crate of seasoned oak that he insists on using to fire his grills, for which he wound up having to purchase an airplane seat.

“What’s funny is that I had heard about kiawe wood before we arrived, yet didn’t know much about it. We ended up grilling half the ribs we brought with us with my oak, the other half with kiawe, and you almost couldn’t tell the difference,” Ostini adds, stressing the word “almost.”

So how can you employ some of the insider tricks of the trade that elevated Hitching Post to world-renowned status? Ostini is happy to share.

“You want a clean burn on your fire. You need lots of natural air going through the fire so it doesn’t smolder,” says Ostini, pointing to the simplicity of his signature grilled artichoke dish, that is steamed, then chilled and finished over the open flame, before being served with a smoked tomato pesto mayonnaise.

Additionally, Ostini isn’t a fan of the slathered-in-sauce, slow cooking that seems to be the sweeping barbecue trend du jour.

“Texas, South Carolina, Louisiana… they’re all pushing their own perspective on barbecue. What they call barbecue, we call ‘open grilling.’ And of course, we think ours is the best. Cooking over a fire, fast and simple grilling, it’s delicious. And if you keep it simple, we’ve found that it works really well with wines,” he adds.

Quite an array of wines, it turns out. Along with wine partner Gray Hartley, a self-described fisherman who spent 30 years pulling salmon from rivers in Alaska, the duo has grown from producing 5,000 cases of wine in 2000 to 15,000 cases per year. Of those, they produce 10 pinot noirs, and a smattering of rosé, cabernet franc and a merlot blend.

“We recently released a new vintage, called Hometown, at an approachable price point of $20 per bottle,” Ostini says. “What we love about it, besides the joy of making wine, is that we don’t get fussy about pairings or making a dish that works perfectly with the wine. We want people to feel relaxed and enjoy it.”