This Ain’t His First Rodeo
Acclaimed Chef Ron Siegel Dazzles at Rancho Nicasio’s Western Room
Through soaring redwoods, past undulating hills and beyond stables of plaid-blanketed horses, no less, sits a low-slung building straight out of the wild, wild West. It sports a teeny post office, a not-much-bigger general store and a restaurant long known more for its live music than for any trend-setting cuisine.
It is here, just off Lucas Valley Road in Marin County’s tiny town of Nicasio—with a population that swells to 100 on a busy day—that you will find Rancho Nicasio, where an unexpected chef is creating a remarkable restaurant within a restaurant.
It’s such an improbable spot that when one of the chef’s former sous chefs drove up to see for himself one day, he says his immediate reaction was, “No! Ron Siegel is not working here.”
But he is.
The first American-born chef to defeat an “Iron Chef “ in Kitchen Stadium in the original Japanese version of the culinary competition show. The inaugural sous chef under Thomas Keller when the French Laundry opened its doors. The chef who worked at Daniel in New York, and garnered the highest of accolades heading the kitchens of San Francisco’s Charles Nob Hill, Masa’s, The Dining Room-cum-Parallel 37 at the Ritz-Carlton, and Michael Mina’s eponymous flagship restaurant.
That Ron Siegel.
This past spring, Siegel took over the 47-seat Western Room inside the historic Rancho Nicasio, where the décor is all wagon-wheel chandeliers and mounted moose heads, the bar ambience straight out of the set of “Twin Peaks,” and the dining room is staffed by an entirely different chef and wait staff.
Siegel has ditched the crisp white chef’s jacket for an apron tied over a baggy T-shirt. He’s also left behind the sizeable team of 21 cooks at Michael Mina Restaurant for one that includes only himself, two cooks and an intern.
On the evening of my visit, Chef Siegel is clearly spent from long days that begin with shopping at the Marin Civic Center farmers’ market before coming into the restaurant to butcher meat in the morning, then personally cooking and plating the bulk of the dishes that go out each evening, and even creating the desserts, but he also seems reinvigorated by the change of pace. Yes, he’s seen the raised eyebrows of disbelief. At 50, he’s heard the quips about a mid-life crisis, too. But when people wonder “why” he is here of all places, Siegel emphatically answers, “Why not?”
“I looked up the definition of ‘roadhouse,’” he says. “It’s a restaurant along a major route with a bar that serves food. It doesn’t specify that it has to serve cheeseburgers. So why not have a section of this place where you can give people a surprise? Why not create a place where they can be comfortable with nice silverware, order off the menu and, when the food comes out, say, ‘Damn, that was good!’”
That’s just what regulars and first-time diners are saying about the artful fare now served alongside Riedel stemware in the Western Room, Wednesday through Sunday nights. Rancho Nicasio may be known for its massive outdoor barbecues and its staples of baby back ribs and meatloaf with mashed potatoes served in the main dining room, but the Western Room is shaking things up with handmade rabbit tortelloni gussied up with parmesan foam; ribbons of Japanese shima aji sashimi curled around pickled salted plum and white tissue-paper-thin kombu; and dainty petit fours with precision-cut layers of almond cake, rabbit liver mousse, hibiscus gel and edible blossoms.
“When you work in a bigger restaurant, it’s more about delegating. You lose touch with the food,” says Siegel, who’s shed 15 pounds in the process. “I’m more handson now, which I like. Here, I yell, ‘Hurry up with that duck!’ and I’m saying it to myself.”
How did this unlikely scenario come to pass? It started as Siegel grew increasingly miserable with his daily 45-minute commute into San Francisco from his home in San Anselmo, where he has lived with his wife and four children for 20 years.
And it just so happens that Siegel’s former boss, Michael Mina, lives a five-minute stroll from Rancho Nicasio. Having frequented a few of Rancho Nicasio’s famous barbecues, Mina invited the roadhouse’s owner Bob Brown and his wife to dinner at his San Francisco restaurant.
“We had a great meal,” Brown says. “Michael brought us back into the kitchen, and that’s where I met Ron. Last November—which was three years after that initial meeting—Ron and his wife came here for a music show. Ron said, ‘You probably don’t remember me, but I cooked for you. If you ever want to talk about Rancho Nicasio, let me know.’ The next week, we got together. I liked him a lot. It happened that fast.”
Brown wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, when Siegel came up with the concept that now affords the chef an easy 15-minute commute from home. Brown told Siegel to get what he needed, so the Western Room, previously used only for brunch and lunch, had its rustic look refreshed. The kitchen was refurbished with new equipment, including a French stove and custom sheet-metal countertops. Stone plateware and other higher-end serving pieces were purchased—the kind you wouldn’t ever put roadhouse food on, Brown says with a chuckle.
“We couldn’t make the Ritz-Carlton out of Rancho Nicasio,” Brown says. “But we did the best we could. We had to kick it up a notch. That was the whole idea.”
Brown’s gut instinct has served him well over the years. A native New Yorker, he worked as a Wall Street stockbroker for years before moving to California to start his own brokerage firm. Because the East Coast financial markets closed early, he found himself with a lot of idle time. So when a friend introduced him to a local band, he decided to become their manager. That band was Pablo Cruise.
When Brown scored a record deal for them, he thought, “Wow, you can make a living doing this.” So he gave up his brokerage. It wasn’t long before another band came into his life. That was Huey Lewis and The News. Those are the only two bands he’s ever managed.
In 1998, he got wind that Rancho Nicasio, 20 minutes from his home, was up for sale. “I ran down and bought it before it ever went on the market,” he says. “It’s a beautiful property on 4½ acres with a gorgeous view. I never had a restaurant before. But I figured even if I screwed it up, the property itself would be valuable.”
He needn’t have worried. With his music connections, including being the original co-owner of Slim’s in San Francisco with Boz Scaggs, he has turned the circa-1941 Rancho Nicasio into a popular live music venue featuring acts ranging from Beatles cover bands to the acclaimed Kronos Quartet to Pablo Cruise, which played at Brown’s recent 70th birthday bash.
Rancho Nicasio is a family affair. Brown’s wife, Angela Strehli, a blues singer who has sung with Muddy Waters and Buddy Guy, still performs here. His ex-wife, Jane Brown, a partner in the business, is the venue’s former accountant and still has a hand in developing the wine list. His 42-year-old son Max, a graduate of the California Culinary Academy, has been the chef of Ranch Nicasio since Brown bought the place. Max continues in that role today, overseeing the main dining room and outdoor barbecues.
The Siegel family has now joined that mix. Siegel’s wife, Kimberly, whom he wooed when she was a server at The French Laundry, is back working with her husband, this time as manager of the Western Room. Their two daughters, 17-year-old Riley and 15-year-old Kelsey, bus tables and hostess in the Western Room, when they’re not busy with school. It’s led to some amusing exchanges.
“Riley came into the kitchen one day and said, ‘Chef, Mom wanted me to give you this …’ and I’m thinking, ‘You can’t say that,’” Siegel says, rolling his eyes.
These days, swarms of Rancho Nicasio regulars are making reservations specifically for the Western Room. Diners who have reveled in Siegel’s cooking at his previous establishments are driving from as far away as Belmont to check out his food here. And some of Siegel’s friends in Marin are rejoicing that they can finally afford to eat at one of his restaurants.
All of which leaves Brown beaming. “We always had a nice solid business. But it’s on a whole ‘nother level now,” he says. “It’s kind of like being an overnight sensation after 18 years.”