A Desert Garden is a Chef’s Oasis
The Sonoran desert calls to mind many attributes: captivating vistas, Southwestern style, stunning sunsets. Agriculture, though, doesn’t jump to the top of the list. Yet at Westward Look Wyndham Grand Resort & Spa, agriculture is one of the most unusual attractions. On this expansive 80-acre property—home to 241 guest rooms, including a suite with a private outdoor freshwater hot tub; three sparkling pools; and a spa offering personal indulgences like desert stone massages, blue corn scrubs, and Ayurvedic treatments—over an acre of land is set aside for a chef’s garden. That’s in addition to the two herb gardens—one by the dining room and one by the spa, where guests can choose their own herbs for treatments—and the various fruit trees scattered across the grounds. Those include pomegranate trees and “about the only two fruit-bearing avocado trees in Tucson,” says director of food and beverage Morgan Puffenbarger. That magic is thanks to a man Puffenbarger calls “the plant whisperer”—grounds manager Raymundo Ocampo, who grew up in a gardening family in southern Mexico and has been with Westward Look for 30 years.
Ocampo grows 40 to 50 items throughout the year, including lettuces, Swiss chard, beets, Chinese cabbage, turnips, carrots, onions, broccoli, and cauliflower. “We replant about every quarter, something good for that time period,” Puffenbarger says. “February, we’ll be finishing the winter. March is the beginning of the new spring planting season, so we’ll start tomatoes and peppers, so that the seeds can germinate. We’re always doing heirloom tomatoes in February and March.”
The on-site produce features prominently in the resort’s two dining destinations, the Gold Restaurant and the Lookout Bar & Grille. Right before planting season, Ocampo and executive chef Antonio Rodriguez discuss what’s being planted, and then the chef designs the menu around the crop as much as possible. There are daily changing garden salads with seasonal offerings like pomegranate vinaigrettes; Asian pear, baby green, and radicchio salads; and English pea risotto with fresh-picked leeks and chard. “We maybe do 40 to 50 covers a night in our Gold Restaurant,” Puffenbarger says. “We can change the items daily and weekly. We do nightly specials as well.”
Of course, the desert environment does present specific challenges. “The good news is that we don’t [experience freezing temperatures] a whole lot here,” Puffenbarger says. “We try to plant seasonal things that can handle the freeze; we don’t cover when it freezes.” They also plant near pools and walls to utilize the humidity and heat, respectively, that they retain. While the summer is hot, Puffenbarger explains that the area experiences a monsoon season in late summer, with almost nightly rain that meets the plants’ needs. They plant shorter crop cycles as well, and are looking into building cisterns to capture rainwater.
The produce is popular with guests interested in organic eating, and the plants themselves are also a big hit. “As guests walk from the main building to their rooms, they pass a few trees bearing fruit,” Puffenbarger says. “People love that.”