Gone are the days when only European royalty flocked to the health spas to purge body and soul of the excesses of too much living. Gone is the stigma of spas spare, Spartan fare--the miserable muesli and mineral water diets and those awful protein fasts.
Spa dining is today's sophisticated dieter's dream--a way of eating lightly with great eye appeal and without the slightest sense of deprivation.
Now that spa dining has come out of the spas and into the kitchen, anyone can start a program of light eating for trim and fit looks over the summer.
We followed chefs of four local spas into the kitchen to learn what they do to cut calories, fats, cholesterol, sugar and salt, while presenting picture-perfect plates for maximum eye appeal.
All differed in their approach to cooking methods and styles, but the bottom line was cutting total calories, particularly fats, which contribute the highest number of calories per gram compared to any other food element.
Some spa chefs stressed portion control, a method by which you can eat just about anything you enjoy but in restricted amounts. Others stressed the idea of cutting fat as a major tool for reducing total calories dramatically.
Fat, after all, contains more than double the calories per gram than carbohydrate foods. Alcohol calories, too, are higher than the calories from carbohydrates. Fat contains 9 calories per gram and alcohol contains 7, but carbohydrates contain only 4 calories per gram. Most spa chefs concentrate on the low-carbohydrate calories by using complex carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes) not only as bulk for increased fiber (nature's great cleanser) but increasing portion size without the excess calories.
Chef Christian Chavanne of the Golden Door Inc. in Escondido, Calif., calls his spa cooking "the restorative cuisine" in keeping the basic tenets of health-conscious dining: "We pretend that fat, sugar, white flour, salt, butter and cream do not exist. We pretend we are on an island and cannot get these products. Instead there are hundreds of other things that nature provides us with," Chavanne said. He also draws upon his native Provencale cuisine and his love for ethnic cuisines, whose products fascinate him enough to cause frequent trips to markets. His marriage to a Japanese woman, he thinks, has also influenced his spare, aesthetic approach to spa cooking.
To master chef Michel Stroot, of Cal-A-Vie in Vista, Calif., spa cooking is dictated by three important elements: colorful presentation, taste and texture. "My father was an artist and wallpaper designer, and he taught me about contrasts. I make sure color combinations are right on the plate. How a dish looks and excites the appetite is second in importance. People tend to overlook texture. You must have something crunchy to complement the softer foods on the plate."
Beautiful presentation characterizes Stroot's cuisine. Stroot, a Belgian, also draws heavily on ethnic cuisines--Thai and other Oriental cuisines fascinate him most. He will travel to Hong Kong this year to learn more about Chinese cooking.
At La Costa, Carlsbad, Calif., dietitians use a more scientific approach to cooking. "The basic philosophy we want people to recognize is that instead of counting calories, count fat. If you eliminate fat altogether from cooking, you won't need to concentrate on counting calories," said Kathy Hall, a registered dietitian at La Costa. The recommendation by the spa dietitians is that 70% of the total calories come from complex carbohydrates, 20% from protein and the remaining 10% in fat naturally inherent in foods, not added.
Most spa experts expressed a necessity for exercise in conjunction with lowered calorie diets. "Diet and exercise go hand in hand," said Chavanne, who fought his own weight back to normal with diet and exercise. A daily regimen of 20 to 40 minutes of walking, bicycling, aerobic exercises, jogging or swimming are effective aerobic forms of exercise.
Here's a rundown of methods used by the spa chefs to reduce calories, fats, sugar and salt, and some of their recipes to show you how it's done.
Chavanne uses whole-wheat flour, sometimes oat and rice flours mixed with unbleached flour for baking. No enriched white flour is used.
For fiber, Chavanne concentrates on using more vegetables, rice and some grains. "I don't use too many of the unfamiliar legumes, such as lentils and unusual beans, because you don't want to shock people who are not accustomed to these foods."
To cut fat calories and cholesterol, he uses no red meat. Fowl, boneless, skinless chicken and fish are used. If eggs are called for, he cuts down on egg yolk, by using two egg whites to one egg yolk. He uses low-fat cheeses such as hoop, skimmed ricotta, 2% cottage cheese and tofu cheese (which has 30% fewer calories than most cheeses).