It's Christmastime at Capitola's Shadowbrook Restaurant, and 900 hungry guests are on their way.
Ready to feed them is Ashley Hosmer, 25, a Santa Cruz native and Shadowbrook's recently appointed executive chef.
"This is a special-occasions place," she said. "We have clients who got engaged and married here 40 years ago and still come. So it's important to keep the old-time favorites on the menu but also offer some contemporary dishes."
Shadowbrook has been a favorite Santa Cruz County restaurant ever since it opened in 1947. Hosmer was elevated to the post of executive chef last summer, after working three years as a pizza cook and a sous chef. She also has experience taking inventory, placing orders and keeping a kitchen of 25 employees stocked and running smoothly.
Hosmer was born and raised in Santa Cruz in a family of six. Her father, sign artist (and Patch contributor) Stephen Hosmer, opened Stoke's Signs in 1985, the year she was born.
"Ashley was always ready to get her hands on the food and get messy with it," her dad said. "She loved to get in there and mix it up. Our kitchen has a counter that you can sit at and watch people prepare food. She was always up on that counter asking questions, asking if she could help."
But it wasn't until she and dad visited the California Culinary Academy that Hosmer chose cooking as a profession.
"The minute we walked in there, I was just floored," Hosmer said. She graduated from the academy's Le Cordon Bleu Program at 19 and worked several years at the St. Regis Hotel in Princeville, Kauai. Then she returned home and began working her way up at Shadowbrook.
Owner Ted Burke said he soon realized Hosmer's innovative ideas were improving every dish.
"I remember when she started here, she was a bright, energetic person, and passionate about her career," said Burke. "I thought she had the talent to overcome having a little less experience."
Since then, Burke said, Hosmer has proved him right.
"Judging from the feedback I get from customers, they are satisfied with the thumbprint she has put on the job and with her enthusiasm," Burke said.
Shadowbrook's Christmas-dinner menu includes leg of lamb and Corralitos smoked ham, as well as a selection of the most popular items on the dinner menu. The holidays are usually a bit crazy, Hosmer said, but she is used to serving the multitudes. While this Christmas is her first as executive chef, she serves about 500 on most weekends.
"Ashley's great to work with," said longtime server Will Schein. "Her lightheartedness is appreciated in an intensely time-sensitive work environment. She has created flexibility and cohesion in the kitchen while chuckling."
Hosmer's office shelves are lined with cookbooks, which she flips through often for ideas, she said. Her favorites are by Chef Cindy Pawlcyn, who happens to be her mother's best friend's aunt.
Hosmer relieves the stress of 50-hour work weeks by exercising daily with her red-nosed pit bull, Kona. And now that she is almost finished paying off her school loans, Hosmer said, her thoughts are turning to travel.
"That's how you get ideas—you need to get out and travel and taste new things," she said.
The job hasn't been easy, but Hosmer said she's learned a lot at Shadowbrook.
"Being a woman in this industry is hard," she said. "When I graduated culinary school, I was just 19. I didn't think anyone would take me seriously. I was just a beach girl.
"School and work are like night and day. I have the piece of paper saying I graduated Le Cordon Bleu, but I learned the most right here—working."
Below is one of Hosmer's favorite holiday recipes for Cranberry Cornbread Dressing, made with thick-cut smoked bacon for an extra rich flavor.
3 cup cornmeal
4 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
4 Tbls baking powder
½ Tbls salt
1 Tsp cayenne pepper
8 large eggs
Preheat oven to 350. Butter a 13x9x2 inch glass or metal pan thoroughly.
In a large mixing bowl combine cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cayenne. Sift through sieve. In a separate bowl, combine eggs and milk, and beat LIGHTLY. Add dry ingredients to wet. DO NOT OVER MIX. Batter will be slightly lumpy.
Pour into pan and bake for 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
Cool and store until ready to cut into 1-inch squares for dressing recipe.
Smokey thick-cut bacon, diced small
Rendered fat from bacon
1 large yellow onion, diced small
2 carrot, peel and diced small
2 celery stalk, diced small
2 Tbls chopped garlic
2 large shallot, minced
1 bunch fresh thyme, minced
1 tsp Herbs de Provence
1 tsp poultry seasoning
½ cup dried cranberries
2 large eggs
1 cup buttermilk
½ cup minced fresh herbs, sage, marjoram, basil, rosemary, oregano.
Dice cornbread into 1-inch cubes and set aside in large mixing bowl. In a large shallow bottom pan, over medium heat, add bacon and cook slowly until bacon is crispy, add carrots, onion, celery, garlic, shallots and thyme. Add dried herbs and cook until vegetables are cooked through. Add mixture to cornbread in mixing bowl. Add cranberries. Add herb mix to cornbread mixture.
When mixture has cooled, add eggs and buttermilk and mix with your hands. Add salt and white pepper to taste. Place into ceramic serving dish and bake at 350 degrees for 12-15 minutes or until 150 degrees in center.