Recipes for this Story
Orange-Ginger Apple Cider
Broiled Goat Cheese Crostini with Minted Grapes
Warm Upside Down Apple Spice Cake
Written and produced by Stephen Exel
Photographs by Luca Travato
When Deborah Szekely opened the legendary Golden Door spa in 1959, she enticed visitors to rejuvenate with weeklong getaways in a serene retreat. Although set in Escondido, California, it is styled as a traditional Japanese village and dedicated to exercise and well-being, with doses of massage, facials, and mental relaxation. She also created a revolutionary movement for health-conscious eating. It was delicious enough to be called "cuisine"--spa cuisine.
Fifty-one years later, the golden portals still swing open to welcome guests to a discreet week of luxurious renewal. The meals that keep the energy flowing and the pounds evaporating result from the skills of the spa's new executive chef, Kayla Roche.
Kayla took over this coveted role in April, after starting as a line cook in 2007 and becoming the sous chef in 2008. At 25, she is the first woman and the youngest chef to hold the executive chef position. She is also the standard-bearer for a culinary style that's respected for nourishing the body, the mind, and the spirit.
Fortunately, there's a guiding hand at the Golden Door. At 88, Deborah still plays an active role in overseeing the spa, including a weekly lecture for guests on subjects ranging from inner beauty ("beauty is an inside feeling and an opening to the spirit") to aging ("I really believe the process of aging is a choice. I don't have time to be old").
It takes a strong leader to manage a kitchen in operation three meals a day, seven days a week, and Kayla won her job not only for her culinary talent but for her management skills and positive attitude. She finds her relationship with Deborah an inspiration. "Seeing what Deborah accomplished as a young woman puts my own ambition in perspective," she says. "You have to give it time and let things fall as they would naturally."
Cooking with a Zen attitude has other lessons. "When I was a line cook, Deborah would often offer constructive criticism," Kayla explains. "While this was sometimes hard to hear, I learned to take a step back and look at my cooking without ownership."
Many guests returning to the Golden Door look forward to favorite dishes. Kayla maintains a roster of classic recipes, updating some, keeping some originals, and adding her own preparations that effortlessly combine diverse cuisines.
For example, a rosemary-scented Orange-Ginger Apple Cider warms up a contemplative moment spent in a Japanese-inspired garden or resuscitates guests after an ambitious morning hike. It also wakes up the senses with a subtle combination of flavors, a talent Deborah admires in Kayla's cooking.
"Kayla is a sensitive cook," she comments. "She's especially good with spices, and her presentation is gorgeous." That's high praise coming from the boss--especially when the boss believes that food has a higher purpose.
"Food is connected with joy," Deborah insists. "I'm against counting calories. That's like counting kisses--it gets in the way of love! All it takes is eating 20 percent less."
Without question, dinner at The Golden Door is a joy. Seasonality, as well as taste and nutrition, plays a role; beyond the guest quarters there are expansive organic gardens and orchards. Guests gather when an early Edo-period temple bell rings at 6:15 p.m., a signal the day's activities are over and a leisurely evening is beginning that could include a cooking class or Deborah's weekly conversation.
A typical fall dinner starts with Goat Cheese Crostini with Minted Grapes, a delightful turn on bruschetta. The grapes are savory--tossed with shallots, balsamic vinegar, and mint.
For the main course, a seared salmon fillet with a sweet-hot honey-and-chile glaze sits atop lightly dressed arugula and a garlicky mash of spiced white beans and carrots. This flavorful combination weighs in big on taste but light in calories (just 339) due to searing the fish in grapeseed oil.
Kayla reworked one of her mother's favorite dessert recipes so the small Upside-Down Apple Spice Cakes with a side of nonfat vanilla frozen yogurt satisfy the sweet tooth and still keep the meal in line nutritionally.
"The whole approach to food has changed since we opened the Golden Door," Deborah says. "We have more courage. Habits limit you, but not resilience and flexibility. I want people to share my curiosity about food."
Kayla follows suit. "I've inherited so much in this position," she says. "We want guests to maintain their good eating habits. I do my best to honor Deborah's vision. Seeing what she has done gives me hope I can do the same."