After four grueling years at UC Berkeley, I have finished my degree in Public Health. My reward? A relaxing vacation at the spa, Rancho La Puerta. Located in Tecate, Mexico, this spa focuses on fitness, wellness and nutrition. Being gluten free makes total relaxation difficult to achieve even when at a spa. Overall, I loved my experience at the Ranch and took home some interesting insights that I hope will improve my gluten free experience.
Insight #1 Constant Vigilance
Although I often write about the importance of focus and effort when it comes to being gluten free eg reading labels on products you’ve bought a thousand times or asking about cross-contamination even when you think the dish is safe, I thought that a place committed to health with a focus on food might be an exception. I thought I could drop my guard. What I found at Rancho La Puerta is that this is simply not the case.
While at the Ranch, I saw a poster advertising their “Gluten Free Thursday” cooking class. Here is what happened:
The cooking classes at the spa are usually taught by their Executive Chef, Denise Roa. However, once a week the spa invites guest chefs to teach. This week, on Gluten Free Thursday, the spa had invited Romney Steele aka Nani, the granddaughter of the founders of the restaurant Nepenthe in Big Sur, California. The cooking class was set up so that groups of two spa guests would make one dish using a recipe provided by Nani.
I was working with my Aunt Celia on a baked Sea Bass dish with an orange and tarragon relish. The menu was out of this world. All of the ingredients were picked fresh from the Ranch’s vegetable garden. In fact, before starting the class, the spa guests had to go pick (literally) their ingredients from the garden.
The cooking school’s main classroom
All of the recipes were gluten free and things went smoothly for the most part until we encountered a problem: Nani included a recipe for a pea puree that needed some form of chip/starch-medium to eat. Because this was overlooked when preparing the class, Nani asked one of the workers to go grab some pita bread from the back for the dish. See the problem?
If someone had blindly accepted the sign on the door saying “Gluten Free Thursday” they might not even think to ask if the pita bread was gluten free. My Aunt and I quickly noticed and spoke to Nani about the gluten situation to which she replied “Well, you don’t have to eat that dish.” Despite this discouragement, the Executive Chef, Denise, was horrified at the lapse in gluten free practice and grabbed and grilled some corn tortillas to replace the pita bread.
I don’t usually post recipes but two of the GF dishes we made were simply too good not to post. If interested in some of the recipes I cooked during this class click here for the Quinoa with Cumber and Mint recipe and for the roasted Sea Bass with Orange-Tarragon Relish recipe.
The take away point? Even when places advertise something as gluten free remain vigilant.
Insight #2 Simple Healthful Foods Are The Way To Go
I have read this advice on many blogs, pamphlets, books and websites but I never really understood it. Ordering simple, healthful dishes can make being gluten free a lot simpler. At the Ranch, I found that this was absolutely true. Why is it not until now that I experienced the ease that accompanies simply prepared meals? Simple foods are hard to find at restaurants!
At the spa every dish was made with ingredients found in their gardens or grown within a 30 mile radius of the Ranch. When you looked at the meal, you could tell what components made up the dish. Of course, you should always check about sauces and ingredients but I noticed that dishes that are truly simple and truly healthful aren’t muddled with questionable ingredients. The Beet and Basil Salad was a salad made up of…well, beets and basil. The extravagant, calorie-laden entrees that you find at most restaurants make being gluten free so complicated! If I saw “Carrot Soup” on a menu at most restaurants, I would not order it. It may have flour as a thickener, contain malt vinegar or come garnished with fried onion crisps. At the Ranch, I knew the Carrot Soup was made of carrots and more carrots.
Beet soup served at the ranch with a fresh flower from the garden as garnish
I haven’t quite worked out how to use my new insight about simple, healthful foods to improve my gluten free lifestyle but when I do, I’ll be sure to post. For now, I am simplifying the meals I make at home and trying to choose simple items at restaurants but still accompany my order with a long series of questions.
Insight #3 Apparently, Being Gluten Free Is Hard, So Be Nice To Yourself!
Rancho La Puerta is a spa dedicated to health and fitness. The spa’s clientele are hyper-aware of their diets and have strict exercise regimes. These people demonstrate the type of dietary discipline I can only dream of. They eat only what they need. In other words, teeny tiny portions. They limit their sugar intake, their meat consumption and their dairy consumption. They exercise every day and, when given the choice, choose the salad entrée over the hamburger with fries.
Despite the fact that I found their discipline incredible and something to aspire to, I overheard conversation after conversation about how people had “tried to go gluten free but it was too hard.” These insanely disciplined and professionally successful people admitted that being gluten free was too much of a challenge! One woman said “I felt so great after that month but I just couldn’t keep it up.”
View of Villa Sol 2, my room at the ranch
It was so nice and refreshing to hear other people commenting about the difficulty of being gluten free. It is a thankless job, demanding self-discipline, constant vigilance, intelligence and the ability to not only articulate your needs effectively but to advocate for your health in the face of constant obstacles. It is funny but talking to the health nuts at the spa about the gluten free diet made me kind of proud that I am gluten free.
Take away point? Every now and then, take a moment to appreciate yourself and all the work you put in to being gluten free. Most people don’t know how much effort it takes to truly be GF. Just remember to be kind to yourself and be proud of the fact that you are gluten free.
Although I couldn’t help but think about my blog while at the spa, I did manage to relax and decompress from four tough years at UC Berkeley. I hope to bring my insights from the spa home with me by practicing constant vigilance, choosing simple healthful meals and appreciating my GF efforts and I hope that you do too!
View from my morning hike to the garden for breakfast
-(the new relaxed) CC