Once upon a time amidst the ancestral oaks of Santa Margarita Ranch, Phil Reader found a pile of old plowing discs. Ever the optimist, he saw more to these rusty rounds of metal than pitted, oxidized steel, and in a shade tree tractor shop, he set to work transforming these spent pieces of farm scrap into something else: custom-tailored backyard-sized Santa Maria-style open pit barbecues–no two exactly alike. He dubbed his creation “The Cowboy Hibachi,” and began feasting with friends including the vaquero who resided on the ranch.
But Phil, you see, was a cowboy of a different color: he rode and stabled iron horses. Fire-breathing, often a century old and generally quite cantankerous, caring for these steel steeds afforded him the knowledge and skills needed to construct such an ingenious epicurean apparatus–along with a voracious hunger which could only create a helpless gourmet. In fact, as an engineer on the Roaring Camp & Big Trees in Felton, California, the resourceful Reader realized the culinary potential of the steam locomotive itself, when he began cooking entire meals off the heat of boiler backheads. Many a conductor was tortured by the tantalizing aroma of Reader’s engine cab cookouts wafting over their train. On one occasion, after a grilling of bacon-wrapped teriyaki shrimp “shiskies” atop No. 7’s cast iron firebox door, one such trainman dashed from the caboose at the end of a run in hopes of a taste–only to witness the fireman lick his lips after plucking the final prawn from the very last kabob.
High-iron noshing wasn’t a new idea; some railroad rulebooks even included recipes for cooking on coal scoops. Nevertheless, Reader took the tradition Santa Margarita, where it found fast friends in the cowboys who resided at the Ranch. The vaquero, as they’re known, who have grazed in the region over a span of three centuries, are master cuisiniers in their own right. It was these very vaquero who gave us the Santa Maria-style cookout–a brilliant, minimalist approach to barbecue centered around spice-rubbed tri-tip some claim to be the very inspiration for modern California cuisine.
The cowboy and the steam railroader, common men of the past and now iconoclasts of the present, coalesced over this common love of outdoor cooking. Cattlemen grazing the Rancho and the crew of the Pacific Coast Railroad Company frequently indulged in Phil’s savory steaks and Dutch Oven stews. Young college-age firemen with their growing “starving student” appetites were always encouraged to eat more, with the scraps saved for a trio of pouncing pugs. Rarely did one ever leave hungry–nor without a good story. After dinner, with the coals still hot, the Hibachi assumed its second role as a fire pit, setting the perfect mood for tales of steam, spirits and the Rancho’s fascinating 200+ year history.
As these gatherings of grilled glee garnered even larger audiences, Phil began building more Hibachis for family and friends–even charity auctions across California. One such offering caught the attention of the then-Chairman of the California Restaurateur’s Association, who, after being outbid, commissioned Phil to construct him a custom CBH to call his own. True to the nature of any handmade product, each subsequent model CBH carried new, different and improved features. Standard stock sported a square adjustable grill grate, hand rotisserie, dutch oven hooks and hand-forged grilling tools. Next came damper control, cleverly-designed linkage to hold and pour campfire coffee pots and handles crafted from old horseshoes. Blacksmith work become increasingly intricate. Smaller discs were used to produce smaller models, one a scouting buddy was determined to carry from campsite to campsite on his back. Another, a collaborative project with an apprentice designed for an East Coast vacation home, sported a nautical motif, complete with an anchor-shaped tool holder, dock cleat handles and a lipped, oversize base bowl reminiscent of an old whaling pot. Each CBH was truly one of a kind.
The eclectic fusion of ferroequine and cattle-driving cuisine the Cowboy Hibachi creates continues to delight from California to Colorado to New England. To date, some 20+ have been built with plans for many, many more. Despite all its railroad roots, the CBH remains most true to the ways of the vaquero. These morally-upright cattle drivers were model sustainable citizens whose foresight and stewardship of the land preserved it for all to enjoy. It took a railroader to build it, but with virtually element recycled and repurposed, Phil’s grills in every way embody their spirit in making the most of the land by taking the least from it and existing for so many to enjoy. After all, it is the Cowboy Hibachi!