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Bringing Spa Cuisine Home

Rancho La Puerta’s proprietor pioneered healthy eating. Now she teaches guests how to keep food simple.

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A class at Rancho La Puerta’s cooking school. (All photos courtesy Rancho La Puerta)

Whenever I want to refresh my body and my soul, I head to Rancho La Puerta, a beautiful and tranquil refuge just south of San Diego. Since the ranch opened more than 70 years ago, owner and founder Deborah Szekely has been an agent for change in how Americans eat, emphasizing the use of local fruits and vegetables and high-fiber, low-fat foods. Sometimes I feel as if the rest of the country is just catching up with her ideas.

To help share her ideas, Szekely, who turned 90 this May, started a wonderful organic cooking school at Rancho La Puerta in 2007 called La Cocina Que Canta (The Kitchen That Sings).

La Cocina exists because I kept hearing our guests—most of them Baby Boomers—say they thought cooking was such a chore,” said Szekely. “Somehow many, many otherwise accomplished people find themselves at a point in life where they either don’t know how to cook, or feel that good cooking has to be undertaken with great complexity. I want to show how easy it is.”

Szekely got help starting the school from Antonia Allegra, former food editor for the San Diego Tribune.

“It forms a new community of people who like to cook and garden,” said Allegra. “The cooking school expands the memory of the ranch by bringing the recipes into your home. It is the modern extension of the spa where eating healthy is more important than starving yourself.”

The ranch promotes a Mexican-inspired diet low in fat, sodium, and refined flour and sugar, but high in energy, fiber, and complex carbohydrates. Fish is on the menu, but no meat. The cooks use as much of their own organic produce as they can, and the rest comes from neighboring farms in their region. The food’s emphasis is on big flavor (from spices, not salt) and a great deal of fiber so that you feel satisfied without a lot of fat or calories.

Rancho La Puerta has helped pioneer spa cuisine—even though that term is never used there; the style of cooking Szekely has relied on for seven decades has become increasingly popular in recent years as people look for a serious way to eat healthy and lose weight without resorting to fad diets. Now that the school has opened, leading chefs and cookbook writers come to learn from the local cooks at the ranch and to teach people how to prepare this healthy food at home. With its scant use of meat, it’s a style of cooking that’s easy for kosher cooks to adopt, too, as Jewish foodies think about eating healthier food.

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Rancho La Puerta was founded in 1940 by Szekely, the daughter of a Jewish vegetarian-fruitarian family from New York, and her now-late husband Edmond Bordeaux Szekely, a refugee from Hungary and professor who studied the healing power of foods. Edmond had been accused of deserting the Romanian army; threatened with deportation from the United States, he fled with his wife across the Mexican border, where they founded a tent colony in Tecate.

Deborah Szekely

Deborah Szekely

“The founding of the ranch was a miracle—the most unlikely, improbable event ever,” said Szekely. “There was the war in 1940, of course, and we were two people without a country. It couldn’t be done again. We also had guests in the early ‘40s who were stuck at the ranch because they couldn’t go home to Europe, and even though they had little or no money, they helped us survive.”

Eating healthy, mostly raw, food, including organic vegetables, soups, and cheese made from their own goats’ milk, the Szekelys germinated their own grain, ground it, and formed it into crackers, baked in the sun in the summer and in ovens in winter. Although Edmond aspired to eat like the Essenes near the Dead Sea, being in Mexico they ate, in a sense, pre-Columbian natural food at a time when processed food was taking over America.

“We’ve always had organic at the ranch from the first day we arrived,” said Szekely. “The Professor, as the guests called my husband Edmond, railed against pesticides. He had been corresponding with leaders of the organic gardening movement in the 1930s before we arrived in Tecate. As I recall, he was in touch with Jerome Rodale here in the U.S., founder of Rodale Press and really the man who popularized organic gardening in the U.S., and Sir Albert Howard in England, he being the author of An Agricultural Testament, which was published the same year we opened.”

Szekely, who remembered wonderful vegetarian meals her mother had prepared when she was growing up in Brooklyn and Tahiti, became the ranch’s chief cook. She sourced all their food—including olive oil, vinegar, and honey—from local farmers.

Little by little, Rancho La Puerta grew, its reputation spreading north to Hollywood by word of mouth. At first it was mostly movie stars like Burt Lancaster who would come down to the ranch. By 1958, it had grown so much that Szekely built a sister spa, the Golden Door, which was recently sold to the Blackstone Group. Today, the ranch is known as a place where (mostly) women from all over the United States go for what Szekely calls “tune-ups.”

Food is an essential part of these tune-ups. The ranch has been cooking healthy food since the 1940s. The Professor practiced biogenics and believed that processed foods destroyed the body. He advocated the healing powers of raw or germinated organic fruits and vegetables. The movement caught on with the publication of the French chef Michel Guérard’s Cuisine Minceur in 1976. One of the founders of nouvelle cuisine, Guerard later took it a step farther by, among other things, substituting fromage blanc and yogurt for heavy cream and butter. He used to claim that he could cook a meal that traditionally had 3,000 calories with only 500 calories and just as much flavor. The book caught on and popularized the way of cooking that the Szekelys had already been practicing for decades.

Szekely considers herself a leader in spa cuisine. “Our early meals were so simple and so basic, but we always based everything we served on maintaining health,” she said. “Losing weight wasn’t the priority: We wanted guests to realize that food is a vital, life-giving element of a healthy life.”

Whenever possible, the ranch still serves raw food with lots of herbs, exotic spices, and seasonings. One of their most popular recipes is guacamole made with a little avocado and a lot of broccoli and fresh peas.

Szekely, who says she still feels “very Jewish” and considers her Jewish friends “a family,” continues to observe some religious traditions in Mexico. For instance, on Friday nights, the ranch serves challah—its own healthy recipe—in a side room for any guests who wish to say blessings. Connecting this kind of cooking with Jewish culinary tradition isn’t difficult. Spa cuisine, in its simplicity and its heavily vegetarian content, is very simple for most Jewish cooks to adapt, even if they keep kosher.

“I do not think ‘spa cuisine’ is popular in Jewish circles, but spas are,” said Janet Zalman, a nutritionist in Washington, D.C. “Jews, like most Americans today, are consuming too much sugar, refined carbohydrates, and total calories, which is contributing to the growing problem of both diabetes and obesity. Keeping a kosher kitchen can, in my opinion, be helpful. This is because a kosher kitchen requires commitment to following the ‘rules,’ attention to your food choices, and the inability to easily pick up junk food outside the home. Using the same mental framework of commitment, a person managing a kosher kitchen could easily integrate several other rules, which when added to the rules of kashrut could allow a family to decrease the unhealthy calories while creating low calorie, highly flavorful meals without the excess of sugars, refined carbohydrates, or saturated fats.”

Guidelines for the cooking school are set by Denise Roa, the head of the program: no sugar but agave syrup, no flour in the gluten-free classes, no butter, no deep frying. Teachers arrive for a week or sometimes two, participating in the ranch’s programs of hiking, swimming, Pilates, and other forms of exercise, and teaching three classes per week: one demonstration and two hands-on. The hands-on classes are mostly vegetarian, with an occasional fish dish; at least one class is gluten-free. Roa and her staff also lead a set of classes.

The school brings in chefs and cookbook writers from around the United States, chosen for their recipes and teaching ability. These teachers do not, however, specialize in “spa cuisine” normally; before they arrive, Roa gives them a list of the extraordinary seasonal produce growing that week in the ranch’s organic garden, tended by Salvador Tinajero. Before the 20 or so students assemble for the hands-on classes, the mostly Mexican staff preps about eight recipes—typically low-fat and vegetarian, and easy to cook at home.

For David Cohen—partner and consulting chef for Eye Spy Critiquing and Consulting, who was teaching when I was there most recently—working at the ranch’s kitchen is often a challenge; most chefs usually cook for flavor, not for fat-obsessed diners. “I am very health- and nutrition-conscious, so the challenge becomes not to cook with all the butter and the fat we associate with restaurants, and the flavor comes naturally from the garden,” Cohen said. “The less we do with the food, the more flavorful it is.”

At Cohen’s class, we made a gluten-free vegetable and hibiscus enchilada with chipotle pepper sauce; a vegan carrot cake held together by rice and corn flours, with a soy “cream cheese” frosting; and a delicious and colorful cauliflower, cashew, and pea salad that has now become part of my new cooking repertoire. “I didn’t have to change that recipe that much, just cutting down on the sweetener,” he said. “The most challenging and fun part is to use the freshest ingredients of the garden. That is so much of what the ranch is about.”

Amelia Saltsman, author of The Santa Monica Farmer’s Market Cookbook, has also taught at the ranch. “The way I source food means that there is very little that I need to change,” said Saltsman, who has been teaching at the ranch for the past four years. “Sourcing from the garden or from a good farmer’s market means that the ingredients are so natural, you just want to highlight the goodness,” she said.

Starting with raw ingredients, Saltsman finds she needs little adapting. “When it comes to desserts, I just sear off fruit and let the fruit shine,” she added. “Many of our older recipes use a lot more sweetener than is necessary, especially when you are buying top of the season peaches or nectarines. When food is carefully grown and picked when it is ripe, you are going for flavor. And it means that cooking can be simpler.”

At the end of the week, you sometimes lose a few pounds at the ranch, but better than that, you can take a few ideas that will extend to your everyday life. I am reminded of it every time I taste the ranch’s signature broccoli and pea guacamole at another dinner party in Washington, D.C., thousands of miles away from the spa.

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Bringing Spa Cuisine Home

Rancho La Puerta’s proprietor pioneered healthy eating. Now she teaches guests how to keep food simple.

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