Spa Cuisine, Then & Now
The simple spa menus of grapefruit and cottage cheese are—thankfully—long gone as spa cuisine has developed into a glorious subcategory of its own. The attention spas are paying to food—whether it be hiring the finest chefs, adopting a farm-to-table spirit, or providing cooking classes for its guests—has made it clear: a spa's food is being treated with the same level of importance as its treatments. Find out how we got here.
The First Spa Cookbook
The first spa cookbook emerged from Golden Door in 1982 and was called The Greening of American Cuisine. "The early days of spa cuisine served things along the lines of Spartan food, like grapefruit and cottage cheese," says Susie Ellis, president of SpaFinder. "The idea of losing weight was associated with low-calorie foods."
"Spa Cuisine" Trademark
In 1983 the term "spa cuisine" was introduced and coined by Four Seasons Restaurant, pictured here. Since there was no such thing as spa culinary education, many of today's best spa chefs learned how to create interesting and tasty low-calorie food at the Sonoma Mission Inn and Golden Door, Ellis says.
Spa Cuisine Hits Fine Dining
In the mid-'80s, as the obesity epidemic rose, even many finer restaurants caught on to Four Seasons' success with spa cuisine. Restaurants like 400 North Canon in Beverly Hills and Geoffrey's in Malibu opted to offer nothing but spa food, forbidding excessive use of salt, cream, oil and butter, without sacrificing taste, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986.
Chefs Step it Up
Now, a pedigreed chef is practically a requirement since spa cuisine gets as much attention as the spa itself. Well-seasoned chefs, like Cal-a-Vie's Chef Jason Graham, are becoming a growing norm for spas striving to offer the best in cuisine. Prior to joining Cal-a-Vie in 2001, Chef Graham polished his culinary skills working alongside numerous fine chefs, including time spent at the nearby Golden Door Spa and Rancho Bernardo Inn.
In the '90s the public went through a restriction-oriented, low-calorie-focused phase and slid into diet mode. Spa guests would seek out weight-loss retreats where their diets were limited, calorie-counting was prevalent and losing pounds was the focus.
"Spas used to take the temptation factor out of eating," Susie Ellis says, as exemplified by this old photo of spa cuisine from Brenners Park. Debbie Zie, general manager of Cal-a-Vie agrees. "The consciousness has totally changed," she says. "When I first started working here, the average calorie request for women who wanted to lose weight was 800 calories."
A Well-Rounded Diet…and Lifestyle
In the mid-'90s weight-watching changed due to the increasing availability of authentic data; spas began to realize that restricting calories to low levels was actually counterproductive.
"That's when we started building up our menu, and then we went to 1,000 calories for women, for reduction, and then we got it up to 1200," Zie of Cal-a-Vie says. "It was really just a reeducation of the guest and the general public; they now know that in order to have a great exercise program, you have to have great nutrition to sustain your ability to keep up with a fitness program that will be effective, healthy and help keep your weight on track."
Detox Rises as Flexibility Increases
"Nowadays, there is more temptation in spa cuisine, which has also contributed to the popularization of detoxification services at spas," Ellis says. In the '80s, detox and health consultations weren't as important to people as they are now; back then it was more about refraining from alcohol or cigarettes. Now people go to spas like Clinique La Prairie to learn how to age better, and spas like Rancho La Puerta to learn about healthier lifestyles.
Most recently, culinary retreats and spas offering cooking classes have become both trendy and a norm. Many of these retreats have farms onsite for fresh, farm-to-table food and often farm-to-table spa treatments. Guests can learn not only how to eat healthy, but also how to cook healthy with the plethora of spa cooking classes taught by well-known chefs in the industry. To encourage healthy eating from the get-go, some classes are geared towards kids as well, like this Pritikin cooking class.
Full Circle: Whole Eating
While many things have changed in spa cuisine, at some spas they've stayed the same. For Rancho La Puerta, the focus has always been eating whole, fresh foods straight from its organic garden. Now, other destination spas are following suit, whether it be by growing its own ingredients or focusing its cuisine on organic or local foods. The idea of eating whole, fresh foods has come full circle from centuries past.