Spa Food Gets a Makeover

The days of brown rice and steamed kale are over. On Charlie Trotter’s spa menu there’s even room for beef tenderloin. But as Norman Vanamee discovers, calorie-cutting cuisine may be the toughest challenge this celebrated chef has ever put fork and tongs to.

Chef, may I speak to you for thirty seconds?" It was an hour before dinner service and Charlie Trotter was addressing a young sous-chef in the kitchen of C, his restaurant at One&Only Palmilla in Los Cabos, Mexico. The two men had been demonstrating how they create dishes for Trotter’s low-calorie spa menu when the junior cook accidentally poured prosciutto oil—instead of sprinkling dehydrated prosciutto flakes—on a cucumber soup. It was only a few drops, but Trotter was not pleased. The two walked over to a corner and huddled with C’s executive chef, Michael McDonald. No gesturing or Gordon Ramsayesque outburst, just a short intense conversation, and then they returned—this time with Trotter stepping behind the cutting board. "I’m set up better for this in Chicago," he said and leaned over the bowl, pinched some salt, then chopped a few leaves of parsley. His face moved closer and closer to the soup as if he were conjuring flavors through sheer concentration. "The idea," he said, "is not to copy something on the regular menu but to play with the same flavor profiles and create a completely new, low-calorie dish that holds up on its own."

For two decades Trotter has presided over Chicago’s culinary scene. His restaurant, Charlie Trotter’s, opened at a time when the city was awash in mega-portion steak houses, deep-dish-pizza parlors, and un-nouvelle French joints. He managed to convince wary Midwesterners and loyal fans from around the country to take risks—rabbit kidneys, pigs’ feet—and even to embrace his vegetarian menu. He became known for imaginative flavor combinations and a commitment to fresh organic ingredients. Along the way he won numerous awards, hosted a PBS series called The Kitchen Sessions with Charlie Trotter, and wrote 13 cookbooks.

Trotter was skeptical when One&Only asked him to create a special menu to accompany its world-class spa facilities in Los Cabos. He had opened a restaurant at the resort—an airy jewel box designed by Adam Tihany—a couple years earlier and had spent months perfecting the menu. "It wasn’t like I had been dying to tackle low-calorie cooking," he said. "But [managing director] Ed Steiner and I talked about it, and I became convinced I could do something really special."

Until a decade ago spa cuisine revolved around what you did not eat. Fat. Sugar. Fried anything. Most spas featured elaborate salad bars where guests lined up like cows at the trough. In recent years, however, the quality and diversity of their offerings have improved dramatically. Some, like Canyon Ranch, have adopted international techniques and ingredients. Others, such as Golden Door near San Diego, have concentrated on simple preparations using organic products grown on their own property.

Trotter has always embraced a lower-calorie version of haute cuisine. In Chicago diners choose from preset menus featuring numerous small courses. He doesn’t use much butter or cream, and his staff endlessly sources and prepares all kinds of exotic vegetables. "I like the way they taste," he said. "I don’t do the big slab of meat or fish thing. I want the protein to be one note." An early proponent of the raw food movement, Trotter wrote a cookbook in 2003 with Roxanne Klein, chef of the lauded but short-lived Marin County, California, restaurant Roxanne’s. "You’re puréeing things and soaking seeds to make them sprout—it’s very labor intensive," Trotter said. "I thought that I’d have a head start on spa cuisine."

But creating a light menu for C was harder than he had thought. He enlisted the help of Mary Abbott Hess, a Chicago-based nutritionist who is a former president of the American Dietetic Association. Over six months Trotter came up with around 125 recipes—breakfast dishes like warm miso soup with silken tofu, soft poached egg and glass noodles, and dinner courses such as grilled ono with quinoa, sunchokes, and charred eggplant—then sent Hess the list of ingredients. "Sometimes there was too much fat," Trotter says, "but the most surprising moments were when Mary told me I needed to put fat back in or add protein."

"It’s easy to cut calories," explains Hess, who has worked with many top chefs, including Julia Child. "The hard part of good nutrition is nailing the right balance of protein, fats, vitamins, and starch." The two went back and forth, reducing oils and less obvious no-nos, such as soy sauce (too much salt). "One recipe had shaved coconut, which is very high in saturated fat," Hess says, "and another—a raw food dish—was heavy on the almond butter, which is high in calories."

C’s spa menu is available at both the restaurant and the outdoor café, or guests can order to their room. It comes with a list of calories and sodium content to allow diners to keep track of how much they’re consuming each day. The approach—cutting calories by reducing fat and portion size while making sure people get essential nutrients—is fairly typical and mirrors programs at other spas around the country.

"Twenty-five years ago spas were basically fat farms," said Scott Uehlein, corporate chef of Canyon Ranch. "Guests ate around eight hundred calories a day. When I started in 1999, we served celery sticks and tofu. Now we have multicourse menus and serve sixteen to eighteen hundred calories a day." Just adding food has helped improve the spa experience, but more than the numbers is the fact that Uehlein and others have rethought the approach. "A lot of chefs used to try to re-create meals: beef Wellington without the fat, healthy hollandaise. Well, that just doesn’t work," he said. "When I create a recipe, I start from scratch."

Around five years ago Eric Ripert, chef of New York’s Le Bernardin, was approached by a resort that wanted him to devise a spa menu. "The setup was impossible," Ripert said over an espresso at his restaurant late last summer. "They asked if I could have things available on steam trays so people could serve themselves. There was no way to assure quality." At that time, the idea of a resort hiring one of the world’s top cooks was a novelty. Now a pedigreed chef is virtually a requirement (Ripert has since opened two restaurants at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman), and they are given the type of leeway and budgets once reserved for golf courses and infinity pools.

Trotter’s spa menu is just the latest escalation in competition among high-end resorts to offer something new. One of the most enduring axioms in the restaurant business is that if you label an item on a menu "low-calorie" or "healthy," you practically guarantee it won’t sell. When I spoke to One&Only’s managing director about this, he wasn’t concerned. The important thing, Ed Steiner told me, "is that we are providing something unique for our guests." This sentiment was echoed by Neil Jacobs, a senior vice president of Four Seasons. "People who focus on profitability are missing the point," he said. "Even if only two out of ten customers want a spa menu, we’re fulfilling a service."

On Wednesday morning I sat down in a treatment room with Dawn Stika, a young technician from Tempe, Arizona. She placed electrodes around my wrists, ankles, and forehead with wires that led to a box connected by more wires to a laptop computer, which was running something called the Quantum Xrroid Consciousness Interface. "This is a biofeedback device," she said matter-of-factly. "I’m going to ask you some questions. You will not get shocked, but you may feel currents."

Eager to tap into customers’ interest in wellness—and to embrace that most modern business tactic, synergy—One&Only offers a 45-minute Dynamic Biofeedback session to help guests take stock of their health and to plan their menus and spa treatments. "Are you ever anxious?" Stika continued. "Are you ever depressed? How much coffee do you drink? Have you had your mercury fillings removed?" She typed each of my answers, occasionally with a cluck and a frown, into the computer.

"Everything around us," Stika said, "emits a frequency, so I can tell with this machine what vitamins and minerals might be missing from your system. I’m actually giving you vitamin K right now." Just as my new age alarm bell began to go off, she explained that all of this was really about smart nutrition. "The questions and feedback are tools you can use to help identify things that are causing you stress." At the end I was given a printout of my nutritional profile and told I could have my meals at C altered accordingly. When I asked Trotter about this later on, he said, "I was skeptical at first, but it provides interesting information."

That evening I went to the kitchen to watch another round of brainstorming. This time the grill guys walked over to see the action and a small crowd formed around Trotter. The executive chef, Michael McDonald, had prepared panfried salmon from the restaurant’s regular menu. Trotter took a similar fillet, cut it into slices, wrapped them into miniature medallions stuffed with pickled hearts of palm, and steamed them over a bed of lettuce. I tried the fried salmon first and found it delicious but heavy. The medallions were light and aromatic with none of the greasiness typically associated with the fish. This was not just a low-calorie version of something on the menu; it was entirely new. And I liked it better.

When I asked Canyon Ranch’s Scott Uehlein what he thought about resorts going into spa food, he said, "Anything that gets people into healthy eating is good. But it’s very hard to prepare low-fat meals in a restaurant. We are incredibly rigorous about measuring. I’d worry that at some resorts junior chefs who don’t know the drill would ladle oil into a pan instead of spraying it." Then I asked him what he thought of having famous chefs like Trotter tackling spa food. "It’s terrific," he said. "But Charlie Trotter has done a lot of things: raw food and degustation menus. My guess is that he will have a spa menu, and then whatever comes along next, he’ll add that as well. There are those of us who have always done spa cuisine and will stick with it."

Trotter, in fact, is working on a new project: a restaurant in Las Vegas. But it’s unlikely he’ll move on from spa food anytime soon. He has made a name for himself by sticking to his guns, even in the face of criticism. Shortly after opening his Chicago restaurant, he banned smoking—at a time when this was unheard-of. A few years later he decided to stop serving hard liquor ("My food is complicated and I didn’t want a bar scene," he said). And in 2001 Trotter stopped serving foie gras. "I visited some farms and just thought, There’s no way to do this that isn’t cruel," he explained. "I don’t want to deal with it. Simple as that."

At the time, Rick Tramonto, chef of the restaurant Tru, told the Chicago Tribune that Trotter was being hypocritical about foie gras. Trotter shot back, "Rick Tramonto’s not the smartest guy on the block." During my visit to Los Cabos, the city of Chicago implemented a ban on foie gras. There was no gloating from Trotter. "I’ve been getting calls from the press all afternoon," he said. "I’m not here to fight for animal rights. I just didn’t want it in my restaurant."

Trotter’s "my way or the highway" approach to cooking (he likes to quote Henry Ford’s famous line, "You can have the car in any color you want, so long as it’s black") is well suited to the spa food experience. Spa meals at C are typically four courses, many of which consist of dishes you wouldn’t ordinarily order but end up liking. I was skeptical when a plate of parrot fish ceviche with spicy pineapple, frisée, and sourdough crackers arrived, but somehow all those flavors worked perfectly together. Another entrée, grilled pheasant breast with strawberries, pistachios, and marjoram, sounded wrongheaded but turned out to be wonderful. That said, some preparations were less successful. I’ll never learn to love Trotter’s cauliflower-and-turmeric infusion. Ever. And I found the spa-ified chocolate soufflé depressingly tasteless compared to C’s traditional version.

Afterward I spoke with several people who had tried Trotter’s spa menu. One was disappointed by a dinner but liked a breakfast. Another felt it wasn’t cohesive. I asked Trotter how he would handle negative reactions from guests used to his regular cooking (as well as those who had eaten the delicious and rich food at Agua, One&Only’s other restaurant, headed by Larbi Dahrouch). Surprisingly, he laughed. "This menu is not for everybody," he said. "I made it for people who want to come to a luxury resort and have the opportunity to eat healthfully. They can do the spa menu the whole time they’re here or just a few nights. It’s up to them."

Some cooks like to woo the senses. Joël Robuchon’s now famous langoustine at his L’Atelier in New York is three bites of simple, ravishingly fresh seafood. Trotter, on the other hand, likes to confront you, win you over, and along the way show you how smart he is. At the airport on the way home I kept thinking about how challenging the spa dishes were at C and how intense Trotter was about his methods (we ate almost every meal together while I was there). His attitude was contagious. I felt virtuous—not so much because of my low-calorie intake but because my palate had been shocked and pleased.

One&Only sent me off with a packed lunch and I nibbled at the poached chicken breast while waiting for my plane. Then I did something I’m still a little mortified about. I stepped into line at Burger King behind a man wearing a T-shirt with a picture of a beer and the words the liver is our enemy, it must be punished and ordered a cheeseburger. The mouthfeel, as Trotter would say, of cheese and grease spread over me like a balm.

I’m glad Charlie didn’t see me do it.

Rooms, $600 to $2,600; spa menu dinner, $200. One&Only Palmilla, Carretera Transpeninsular, Km 7.5, San José del Cabo, Mexico. 800-637-2226;

One Perfect Dish: Egg and Salmon

1 tbsp minced red onion
1 1/2 tsp Meyer lemon zest
1 tbsp fresh Meyer lemon juice
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 fingerling potatoes, cooked and cut into bite-size pieces
2 cups baby spinach
3/4 cup shaved fennel
2 tsp white wine vinegar
4 eggs

8 paper-thin slices smoked salmon (3 oz. total), rolled up

In a bowl, whisk together the onion, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper to make the dressing. Then toss with the potatoes, spinach, and fennel in a separate bowl. Bring a saucepan of water to a simmer and add the vinegar. Crack each egg into a small cup and add to the water one by one. Poach for one minute and 20 seconds. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon. Set two salmon rolls on each plate and top with the salad and a poached egg. Season with pepper to taste.

Serves four; 155 calories per serving. Adapted from Spa Cuisine by Charlie Trotter.

Eat Right, Sleep Tight: Other Top Resort Menus

The chefs at these four resorts each take a different approach to health-conscious dining. Will the real spa cuisine please stand up?

L’Andana Tenuta La Badiola

Located in what was once the Duke of Tuscany’s hunting lodge, this luxury inn features an ESPA-run spa program.

Mostly finger foods and desserts emphasizing local ingredients, to be eaten after treatments—say, lavender tart to complement a holistic massage with hot stones.

Alain Ducasse says… "Healthy is not necessarily diet," explains Ducasse, who did not count calories when creating his spa menu. "We didn’t use cream or butter, but my goal was to provide an overall pleasurable moment for all the senses."

Four Seasons Westlake Village

This new property has a 40,000-square-foot spa treatment center and is home to the California WellBeing Institute.

Spa Menu Heavy on salad and vegetable appetizers and smaller-portioned classics like chicken paillard and poached salmon with bok choy.

Sandro Gamba says… Classically trained in French cuisine, Gamba doesn’t hide his roots. "I didn’t change my risotto recipe—I cut it in half and serve it with vegetables," he says. "I want to help people stay within the bounds, but I also want to help them cheat just a little."

Ritz-Carlton Bahrain
Manama, Bahrain

A thalassotherapy pool—for restoring vital minerals to the body—is the centerpiece of this spa, which emphasizes oils, lotions, wraps, and scrubs.

Spa Menu Fresh juices—guava, avocado, pomegranate—and Middle Eastern–inflected dishes such as grilled shrimp and hamour (cod) over aromatic rice.

David Mitford says… "Unlike at our other restaurants, these guests are generally in a blissful state," says Mitford. "We don’t want to present them with anything too spicy or sour that will jar their senses."

COMO Shambhala Estate

COMO Shambhala’s sanctuarylike flagship combines Ayurvedic treatments, shiatsu massage, yoga, and other Eastern traditions.

Spa Menu Vegetarian dishes of local organic produce, free-range chicken, and seafood like wok-seared prawns from the nearby Ayung River served with green mango shoots.

Amanda Gale says… A protégé of Sydney chef Neil Perry, Gale keeps it simple. "If you have a beautiful ripe tomato," she says, "you only need to dress it well and it stands for itself. There’s no reason to lose flavor when eating healthy and light."