When my friend Paula Disbrowe lived in New York City, she lived indulgently and admirably. When you went to a bar with her, she drank real drinks. There were the sidecars at Brasserie 8 1/2, Champagne cocktails at Verbena and mint juleps at Ciel Rouge. She was Rosalind Russell mixed with Marilyn Monroe, and she dressed the part: strappy shoes; dresses with low, swooping necklines; a dash of pink on her lips.
Formerly a professional cook, she'd become a food writer who traveled to places like Scotland and Tahiti for work. On the side, she tended bar at a popular downtown restaurant called Prune, where she wore baby T-shirts and took on the nickname Dixie. She was the consummate city girl.
Then one day Paula announced she was moving to Texasto a ranch, no less. She and her boyfriend, David Norman, who was the baker at Manhattan's Bouley Bakery, were going to become the chefs at Hart & Hind fitness ranch, a spa 90 miles west of San Antonio.
"I'm dying for a pair of sexy chaps," she said.
"But a fitness ranch?" I asked. "How is that going to work with your Prosecco and goose fat regimen?"
"I know," Paula giggled. "Talk about withdrawal."
Recently, my husband and I visited Paula and David at the ranch. A year had passed since they'd packed up a Penske truck and driven to Rio Frio, a town unacknowledged by most maps. Paula greeted us wearing jeans and cowboy boots; David was behind the wheel of a pickup truck. It was all a little surreal.
We drove along a dusty road that cuts through the 5,000-acre property. Armadillos skittered by; goats with rich brown coats stood staring. Hillsides spotted with dark brush pitched over fields shimmering with golden grasses.
During our three days there, Paula and David gave us a taste of their new life tending to guests on the ranch. With their two dogs, Tex and Slidell, at her side, Paula took us on miles of vigorous hikes. We rode horses through fields dotted with antelope. And when we were tired in that pleasing, heavy-limbed way, Paula and David served us sweet, memorable meals. David slipped disks of pizza dough from a wood oven onto large, blue Mexican ceramic plates, and Paula topped each with a tuft of herbaceous salad. Another day we had breakfast tacos made with bright orange-yolked eggs from the Araucana chickens they raise in their backyard.
One day I noticed a collection of Paula's Sigerson Morrison heels stacked in the spare bedroomthe props of a character who had moved offstage.
For Paula there were two loves to pursue in Texas: cooking and David. In New York, when David finished his nights of baking, he would walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to her apartment with a loaf of bread under his arm. "It was the most old-fashioned token of affection," she says. But their romantic life, between David's night-shift hours and Paula's travel, was fractured.
Then, on a trip to Texas for a story, Paula met Kit Detering, the owner of Hart & Hind. The Detering family had used the property for hunting and as a weekend retreat for more than 60 years. A few years ago, after going to The Ashram, a fitness retreat near Los Angeles, Detering realized she already owned the perfect spa. She added a yoga studio to the ranch house and converted a few cottages into suites with room for just 12 guests total. Detering's chef had just quit, and she offered Paulaand later, Davidthe job.
Moving to the ranch was either the fresh start Paula and David's relationship needed or the ultimate test. "We arrived at night," Paula says, "and I kept looking into the rearview mirror. For the last 30 miles, it was just pitch black."
"We had to feel everything out," David adds. "Living together, the cooking."
Their food wasn't an obvious marriage. Paula had cooked in Provence and at an inn in Tuscany. David gained his expertise in bakingat Grand Central Bakery in Seattle, then Bouley Bakeryafter spending a year in Germany. They began integrating their styles, whimsically but thoughtfully, and incorporating Texas ingredients; local venison sausage made its way into potato salad with roasted-tomato mayonnaise. They also added to their menu flavors they'd discovered traveling. One day while roasting squid with sea salt and red chile flakes, David and Paula opened the wood-oven door and out came a waft of sweet sea air, which reminded them both of a trip they'd taken to Venice. Inspired, they folded the squid into warm white beans with lemon juice and marjoram.
The cooking was something they could count on in a new life filled with surprises. "There was a series of firsts," Paula says. "The first time we found an armadillo on the front porch, or getting the first package of chicks in the mail. Once we had done some of the ranch choresweighed a calf, given a shot to a newborn goatand I'd been stung twice by a scorpion, I was like, 'Dammit, I'm a resident!'"
Today, Paula and David have the makings of a full-fledged farm, with three pregnant cows, eight goats, guinea hens, ducks and 15 Toulouse geese, with 20 goslings on the way. They have befriended Cowboy George, the rancher next door, and have warmed to Sharon, the post office clerk, who sells them lambs and has no qualms about reciting parts of postcards their friends send.
By the time I visited, David's cowboy boots were broken in. Paula had traded in His Girl Friday for Daisy Duke, and she was playing the part, as always, with bravura. It was clear they were happier than they had ever been in New York. And they had just gotten engaged.
Amanda Hesser has been friends with Paula Disbrowe ever since she gave her a ride to a train station in France 10 years ago. She is the author, most recently, of Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, with Recipes.