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Miraval 2013

Paradox Plated

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Spas and resorts define balance between healthy and indulgent cuisine.
By Mary Avant March 2014

In a world where the terms gourmet, five-star, and luxury dining are often expected to equate to decadent and indulgent, spas and resorts around the country are working diligently to dispel the myth that healthy fare cannot be creative, tempting, or delicious. While guests travel from near and far and pay top dollar for the ultimate luxury experience coupled with a taste of a healthier lifestyle, spa cuisine has been forced to adapt and elevate its game. This is especially true thanks to guests who not only want, but also expect, cuisine that aligns with the mentality that a spa serves both wellness and indulgence.

At Miramonte Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, California, executive chef Adam Votaw says guests often come seeking a healthier lifestyle filled with activities like golf, tennis, hiking, and, of course, the spa. “Along with all that, they’re looking for this type of cuisine,” he says of the resort’s Mediterranean-inspired fare. “It fits in well, it’s got some tones of being comfort cuisine, and it’s straightforward.”

While many high-end resorts and respites agree that healthy but flavorful cuisine has become mandatory for any reputable spa, what constitutes healthy is a matter that varies from location to location. At Miramonte, where it’s all about fresh, local ingredients, the menu at The Grove Artisan Kitchen relies heavily on California-sourced sustainable ingredients.

Thanks to a bevy of local Southern California purveyors, Votaw says the region’s network of producers has expanded tremendously over the last two decades, creating a web of businesses working together that makes it easier to get consistently fresh and high-quality produce, meats, and fish year-round, resulting in better and healthier spa cuisine for Miramonte’s guests.

Taking it a step further, preparing these fresh, local ingredients in a “clean” manner—one that exchanges complicated reductions and dozen-ingredient dishes with healthy add-ins like olive oil, garlic, herbs, and citrus—is of the utmost importance, Votaw says. “It’s not over-the-top eclectic with a lot of foams and things like that,” he adds. “It’s good, honest food.”

Scott Crawford, executive chef at The Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary, North Carolina, agrees that using natural foods and techniques is paramount to producing healthy, great-tasting spa cuisine. Herons, The Umstead’s five-star, five-diamond restaurant, often uses vinegars, olive oils, and herbs for flavoring, avoiding saturated fats to allow the natural flavor of the product to take center stage.

“If you focus on just getting really good product—things that are grown organically always taste better—they don’t need this heavy sauce or anything like that,” Crawford says, adding that the hotel sources much of its produce from its own farm nearby.

Similarly, there’s a sizable organic farm a stone’s throw from the Bacara Resort & Spa in Goleta, California, which also receives a large portion of its produce from local farmers. “The resources that we have are, bar none, probably the finest,” says general manager Kathleen Cochran. “We can tell our customers that their food was just pulled out of a garden yesterday, and it tastes like it.”

Morning Picks Fill Dinner Plates

Chef Crawford plans to capitalize on the freshness of The Umstead’s products this summer by creating an exclusive dinner menu made only of produce that was in the ground that morning. “I’m going to bill it as: ‘As fresh as it gets,’” he says. The menu, he adds, will show guests the difference between simply a good, fresh meal and one in which the product is as newly harvested as possible.

“I don’t expect to sell this every day,” Crawford says. “It will be very exclusive, but just imagine—as a spa guest—how amazing that could be.”

Though fresh, natural, and whole foods are the key to healthy cuisine at many resorts and spas across the country, Tucson-based Miraval Arizona Resort & Spa focuses on food that’s lower in salt, fat, calories, and sugar, with an emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats, says CEO Michael Tompkins.

By ordering the chef’s selections for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—along with juice and coffee in the morning, a non-alcoholic drink at lunch, an appetizer and dessert at dinner, and two healthy snacks throughout the day—Tompkins says guests can stay between the 1,200- and 1,500-calorie diet suggested by the American Diabetes Association.

But no matter what the dish or how few calories it contains, Tompkins says delivering healthy food in a flavorful way is always top priority for Miraval’s chefs. “The last thing I want is for somebody to get up from our dining-room table and say they’ve had a tasteless spa meal,” he says. “You don’t get that at Miraval. You get really great-tasting cuisine.”

Though Cochran says Bacara’s chefs are mindful of calorie counts, the resort’s restaurants don’t list calories on their menus. “That’s sort of the difference between us and that ‘fat-farm’ mentality,” she says. “If somebody wanted to know, we have all of that information, and we list every ingredient in the entrées so people can see what it is, where it’s from.”

At Lake Austin Spa Resort in Texas’ capital city, both local ingredients and traditionally healthy dishes are critical, but the most important aspect of creating and delivering nutritious spa cuisine involves portion control and course timing, says Tom Tuscher, director of food and beverage. “All of our portions are considered to be [sized] more normal than the outside world…with proteins being a 4-ounce portion for dinner,” he says.

While guests are sometimes initially surprised at the smaller portions, Tuscher says they are quick to understand the reasoning behind it. “We explain that they can have as much as they want, but we do try to do a lot of portion control,” he says. “And we try to take things a little bit slower, particularly for dinner. People realize they can eat normal-sized courses and actually be satisfied by the time they’re done, as long as they’re not trying to eat all of their meals in 30 minutes or less.”

Freedom to Make Smart Choices

While healthy fare is both expected and desired by guests, many spas and resorts have found that menu variety is also critical, even if that means offering some not-so-healthy options to their guests.

Though Bacara’s cafés and restaurants provide healthy options and ingredients like wheatgrass, tofu, and freekeh—a high-fiber, green wheat cereal that’s roasted and used in chicken bowls at the Spa Café—they also offer guests the choice of indulging in less-nutritious items like waffles with maple syrup at breakfast.

“It’s not all fat fat,” Cochran says—after all, the waffles are made from buckwheat—“but they are items that you wouldn’t typically find in a completely health-oriented café.”

Miraval’s chefs and staff don’t force healthy cuisine and lifestyle choices on their guests, preferring instead to educate guests on the importance of consuming whole foods, eating mindfully, and making smarter choices both in the restaurant and at home. “We’re not one of those spas that doesn’t have salt and pepper on the table or where you can’t get a soft drink if you want it,” Tompkins says.

While many Miraval guests adhere to one diet or another—whether it’s gluten-free, raw, or paleo—“most people are still going to go out and have a glass of wine with dinner,” he says. “Additionally, you can’t say that people are not going to want to choose sweets or bread, just because the latest thing now is gluten-free or the paleo diet. People are always going to want to have that sweet-and-savory approach.”

Though variety and the freedom of choice are important to balanced spa cuisine and a five-star guest experience, Crawford says gently leading guests to make smarter choices—in particular, through dedicated spa and wellness menus—does prove useful. To that end, The Umstead serves three-course wellness and vegetarian menus adapted from Herons’ five-course prix fixe menu.

Having dedicated menus not only guides guests on their quest to make healthier choices, but also helps those focusing on wellness or adhering to a vegetarian diet to feel special rather than demanding.

“[Health-conscious guests and those with special diets] expect to be able to walk in and get an excellent, well-prepared prix fixe menu just like every other guest, and that’s what we deliver to them,” Crawford says. “We won’t tell guests: ‘Well, let me see what the chef can do,’ and end up with a hodgepodge of something that doesn’t show any anticipation” of a guest’s individual preferences or needs.

But just because spa guests may seek healthier options, it doesn’t mean that creating tasty and healthy spa cuisine is a simple task—particularly since many consumers are conditioned to think nutritious and gourmet lie at opposing ends of the taste spectrum.

Tompkins says convincing guests—men, in particular—that spa cuisine can be simultaneously nutritious, high-quality, and decadent often seems like an impossible feat. “When men come to the spa, they think the food is going to be tasteless, the portions are going to be small, it’s going to be high in fiber and low in salt, it’s not going to be enough to sustain them, and they’re not going to enjoy the experience,” he says. “Women are certainly savvier at this point because they’ve [often] gone to spas and know that the food has come so far in the last 20 years.”

To help prove the perception wrong, Miramonte’s chefs at The Grove Artisan Kitchen whip up indulgent yet healthy dishes like the Del Mar, which features fresh scallops, salmon, shrimp, mussels, and clams poached in a saffron broth made from fresh fish stock.

Many resorts also use desserts as a vehicle to show off creative and indulgent dishes that won’t ruin diets. Miraval can satisfy most any sweet tooth with one of its most popular creations, Soy Caramel Ice Cream. The soy-based ice cream is shaped into a ball, rolled in sugar-free cereal for a crunch, and drizzled with caramel made from a double-boiled soymilk syrup. “Hands down, we probably get 50 to 60 percent of our guests who ask for that,” Tompkins says.

Since guests looking to create or stick to a healthier diet often need to eat less than other guests, there’s also the challenge of satisfying their desire for a full five-course-dinner experience in a diet-friendly manner. Though difficult, Chef Crawford and his team at The Umstead pull it off by incorporating raw dishes of vegetables, fish, and seafood—all of which are light but full of flavor and nutrients—followed by a slightly heavier main course, and a fruit-based dessert, all in smaller-than-the-norm portions.

Meeting the myriad diet restrictions of guests is always a hurdle for those specializing in spa cuisine, with chefs having to develop fulfilling and nutritious meals that are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, or something else altogether.

Catering to these many dietary needs and regulations tests patience, creativity, and the ability to give guests what they want. “Sometimes we will get a list of 45 things that people can’t have because they’re allergic to it and they’re gluten-free, and they’re paleo, and vegetarian,” Tompkins says.

Unfortunately, many guests expect Miraval’s staff will help monitor what they eat in order to help them stick to their particular, and very detailed, diets. “One of the challenges is delivering on the experience that people expect from five-star cuisine, and then monitoring it appropriately,” he says. “We’ll feed you exactly what you want, but if you get up and ask for a chocolate chip cookie, we’re going to give you a chocolate chip cookie.”