What if you could be in the mythical Shangri-La, said to be a happy, peaceful place isolated from the outside world? What if you could arrive without climbing the Himalayas between Northern India and Tibet? What if this magical place offers you a natural oasis with lush gardens filled with tropical palms, hummingbirds at play in the redwoods and tree ferns, or the sweet scent of peaches, pineapples, and oranges dangling from fruit trees scattered around the gardens?What if to further dazzle the senses there is Swan Lake where resident swans Eros and Athena, along with their elegant family, glide through the waters happily dining on hearts of romaine? Add to this 10,000 tulips, irises, and daffodils, a 12-foot tall bird of paradise tree, an Irish ewe tree, and a California live oak estimated to be more than 200 years old and your search has ended, for tucked away in the canyons of Los Angeles this Southern California Shangri-La, for generations a favorite of the rich and famous in search of privacy, is the legendary Hotel Bel-Air. Your sensory experience begins upon entry which takes you across a stone bridge with a cobbled pathway. A canopy of towering trees and climbing vines shield you from the usually intense sun as a running stream accompanies you on your way to the main building where you are welcomed by most cordial hotel staff. Once you’ve checked into this mission-style hotel consisting 91 rooms or suites, all of which boast a distinctly different décor, the only sense that has not been engaged is taste and for that you are in for what could be described as the crowning touch as you head over to The Terrace for a wondrous dining experience. The Terrace, which overlooks the hotel gardens and Swan Lake, is exquisitely appointed, and with its heated floor and overhead heating system, you can enjoy alfresco dining anytime of the year. Under the supervision of Santa Monica resident Executive Chef Douglas Dodd, don’t be embarrassed if you find yourself moaning with pleasure as you enjoy some of the amazing dishes put together by this young, enthusiastic, very creative chef.Dodd began his career in New York training at the Culinary Institute of America which he attended straight out of high school where he said it all began. “Since I spent so much at our high school hangout, the owner suggested that I work there and that’s how my cooking career was launched.”After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Dodd moved to Switzerland for two years to learn European Cuisine, working as a chef de partie-tournant at Hotel Erilbacherhof. He launched his professional career at the famous Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Texas, followed by a stint working with Chef George Mahaffey at the Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado. His career continued at the Phoenician in Scottsdale, Arizona where he created special dishes for Windows on the Green and the Terrace, both four-star, four-diamond restaurants. Mahaffey, who has been Dodd’s mentor and colleague, steered him to Hotel Bel-Air where he has been the executive chef for almost seven years.“Cooking is the only thing I’ve ever done and I just can’t imagine doing anything else.” Asked about the influence of his mother’s cooking, Dodd said, “Mom was a phenomenal cook, but then everyone’s mom is the best cook in the world,” adding, “However, the cooking we do is definitely very different from what she does at home.”While Dodd creates most of the recipes himself, he does collaborate with the sous chef. “Desserts are pretty much created with my pastry chef Robert [Witkowski] and me,” he said, adding, “We come up with ideas and work on them together.” His biggest challenge as executive chef is “keeping the inspiration fresh and constantly coming up with new ideas so that everything seems new each year, which is also the fun part.” Dodd researches by reading magazines, going out to different restaurants where he sometimes takes pictures with his cell phone, and revisiting his childhood. He cites an example. “I took a simple, approachable dish like macaroni and cheese and elevated it to a Bel-Air level by adding truffles and topping it off with blue prawns.” This talented chef takes the ordinary and elevates it to the extraordinary. Buying the right ingredients is certainly key to any dish and Dodd takes full advantage of the Bel-Air’s 8,600 square foot herb garden filled with basil, rosemary, oregano, and mint. He buys from various farmers’ markets up and down Southern California, including the famous Santa Monica Farmers’ Market where he can be found every Wednesday. Dodd handpicks fresh seafood from local markets, and his menus showcase the unique offerings of California, including fresh vegetables, meats, and cheeses.Smiling, Dodd says, “People always ask me if I would do it all over again, and I interrupt them by saying not only would I do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing or do anything differently. I’ve had the opportunity to travel the world and see all sorts of great things and eat a variety of great food.”Dodd, whose day begins around 9:00 am and ends around 10:00 pm, enjoys working with young culinary students whom he hires as apprentices. “Bringing them on board straight out of culinary school gives us the opportunity to train them in our methods. Watching them grow is a lot of fun and very rewarding to me personally, and we find that when we instruct them from the beginning of their careers they tend to remain loyal.” Oh yes, after dinner you might want to wander over to The Bar, a cozy room with a wood-burning fireplace, a baby grand piano, and enjoyable nightly entertainment. Named the “Hotel of the Millennium” by Tatler Magazine as well as being dubbed the “Number One Hotel in the World” four times by Institutional Investor, these honors are, indeed, well deserved.
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