“Top Chef” Casey Thompson is the new executive chef at The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe’s Morada , crafting a fresh take on the menu as well as overseeing a complete renovation of the restaurant’s dining room and kitchen. Thompson, now appearing on season 14 of “Top Chef” after successful runs on season three and the show’s “All Star” edition, is excited about the opportunity to work at the historical Inn.
“It’s a special place,” Thompson said of the place people celebrate anniversaries, birthdays, holidays and vacations. “It has a little bit of a comfortable feel and my dishes are a lot like that…(The menu) will be what locals and Inn regulars have come to love about The Inn for many, many years, but a lot of it is done my way.”
A Texas native, Thompson was raised in a family with a mix of culinary backgrounds — southern style and French cuisine. Her professional start came at Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas where she worked her way up from a prep cook to becoming the sous chef. After several years at Mansion, she became executive chef at Shinsea in Dallas, a Japanese-influenced restaurant.
She then appeared on “Top Chef” season three and was a fan favorite and finalist. She returned for the “All Star” edition in between opening Brownstone in Fort Worth and Aveline in San Francisco’s Warwick Hotel.
Thompson accepted the executive chef position at The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe five months ago and is splitting time between Napa and San Diego. In Napa, she has worked for various wineries, creating food pairings that enhance wine varietals. Thompson has also been appointed the U.S. ambassador for Terrazas de los Andes, a Moet-Hennessey brand.
“We’re incredibly fortunate to have Chef Casey lead our culinary team,” said Jerome Strack, general manager of The Inn at Rancho Santa Fe. “It’s easy to see why she was voted fan favorite, and why she has done so well on ‘Top Chef.’ Her culinary skills can’t be rivaled.”
Thompson has known Strack for years as he used to be at Warwick when she was at Aveline. Strack approached Thompson to see if she would be interested in lending her talents and style to Morada.
Guests will see changes moving forward until the renovations are fully complete in the spring.
With the menu, Thompson brings a feminine, lighter hand to some of the heavier dishes. She couldn’t shake up the menu completely as she was tasked to keep favorites like steak, short ribs and fried chicken. Not to mention the Royce Salad, which Thompson said will be there forever as regulars will notice if there’s one less avocado or less dressing.
“I knew I would have a challenge,” Thompson said of still keeping the locals’ interest but also attracting visitors to The Inn. “What I try to do in my cooking is feature the vegetables, starches and grains, put them forward and back off the amount of protein on the plate. That’s a more feminine approach to cooking.”
This is not to say she is “skimping on the meat,” she is just adding a different approach to dishes such as fried chicken and meatloaf, “morphing with better ingredients and better techniques that The Inn has never seen before.”
Thompson changed the meatloaf to a waygu meatball with bread soaked in red wine that stays moist, and includes rich and “ridiculous” melted burrata on top of it.
The short rib used to be prepared in an old school way, which Thompson said ended up losing a lot of the flavor and, like pot roast, it tended to dry out. Instead, Thompson now does the short rib bone-in, braises it with aromatics and circulates it for 72 hours so when it’s sliced. it’s still a little pink inside with marbling that you can actually see.
“It’s been interesting and they love it,” Thompson said of guests’ reactions to the new takes on favorites. “It’s a different way than what they had for years.”
Since being brought on, Thompson has worked with the ownership to come up with a different feel for the dining room. It’s a challenging space as it was once a ballroom so it’s very square and it’s also a historical building. The last restaurant re-do featured creamy colors, lots of chandeliers, browns and grays and Thompson said they got away from the historical Ranch roots — she felt The Inn should embrace that ranch and equestrian feel.
“When I look at this Inn and this restaurant you look up through the town and there is this beautiful place up on the hill that looks over the town, like a capitol. It is an institution in town,” Thompson said. “The dining room will have a more equestrian, polo-esque feel, with shades of really beautiful, velvety blue, very different chandeliers and centerpieces.”
“It will be casual with an upscale feel,” Thompson said. “I’m really excited. I feel like it’s really going to embrace what The Inn really is and that’s the center of the town.”
“Top Chef” season 14 began airing in December and, so far, Thompson is doing well.
“You don’t ever get used to it,” Thompson said of seeing yourself on TV. “I’m not acting. You’re never sure of what you said in the moment and you’re never sure of how they’re going to put it all together. It can be difficult to watch sometimes. It’s awkward, sometimes I’m yelling at the TV in the privacy of my own home.”
She likes how the show has evolved since it first began airing, teaching the viewers more about cooking, about food, techniques and different cultures. For the chefs, it’s “culinary camp” where they can share how they prepare foods and learn so much from each other and the show’s challenges.
On this season, the chefs visited a South Carolina home for a Southern hospitality, family-style cooking challenge and Thompson said they were all inspired by what they learned about the family’s traditions and history. Thompson’s team ended up winning the challenge.
”I felt more mature this time around and my cooking style was more advanced. I didn’t feel as green as I did in years past. It was a lot of fun,” Thompson said.
“Top Chef” episodes air Thursdays at 10 p.m. on Bravo. Visit Morada at 5951 Linea Del Cielo. For menus or reservations, visit theinnatrsf.com.