April 2008 Issue

Destination Knowledge — New Vacation Options Combine Leisure and Learning in Paradise
By Kimberly Lutes Haider, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 10 No. 4 P. 40

Want to get away? Resorts such as the Osthoff in Wisconsin and CuisinArt in Anguilla offer unique culinary programs in addition to relaxation—perfect for epicurious or skill-seeking RDs.

Choosing a vacation destination involves negotiating where to go, how much to spend, and what activities to plan—at least, those used to be the main factors in planning a holiday. Now, considering what to learn has become the latest vacationing trend. As the competition for a tourist’s dollar grows more fierce, many hotels and resorts now offer stimulating classes and educational side excursions to attract people who want their vacations to deliver one-of-a-kind experiences in addition to rest and relaxation.

Dietitians are well suited to take advantage of the new learning opportunities as classes centered on food and cooking abound. Resorts and hotels across the United States and the Caribbean offer healthy cooking classes, farming demonstrations such as hydroponics, and guided tours of local food markets.

Learning on holiday is nothing new: Culinary tours of Italy and France have existed for decades, but the cost and traveling time have put them out of reach for the vacationing masses. According to Katie McCormack, a leisure travel consultant for McCabe World Travel and one of Travel + Leisure magazine’s top 2007 travel experts, culinary and food- and wine-themed travel closer to home is exploding. “I think the rapid growth in culinary interest travel is because so many people feel they are closer to being a chef due to the Food Network’s popularity and exposure. For an emphasis on good nutrition, I feel the Pacific Northwest and California cuisines truly lead the way with the use of more fresh, organic, and local ingredients, but restaurants everywhere now offer heart-healthy selections,” she says.

McCormack finds that her clients are becoming more creative with their trips to secure unique experiences that suit their personal and professional interests. For example, if a traveler goes to a spa and eats great healthy cuisine, he or she only needs to ask to meet the chef and can then watch the food being prepared.

Most of the top spas in the United States, such as Canyon Ranch and the Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain, both in Arizona, are known for their innovative meals. Many chefs are eager to share their food preparation techniques and even recipes to allow guests, in a sense, to take the spa lifestyle home with them. Dietitians are in an unrivaled position of authority to evaluate the nutritional value of “spa cuisine” when on holiday at a destination spa or even a local day spa and share this popular take on food with their patients and clients.

Learning Starboard Side
Gone are the days when a cruise vacation meant endless food buffets and a 5-pound weight gain. Low-fat meal options are now the norm, and some cruise lines take their nutritious food to the next level by seeking fresh produce and fish in ports of call. “Since cruise lines have also become much more conscious of this interest, many offer special educational opportunities focused on cooking and nutrition. One most notable is a program with Silversea [Cruises] where you can go on shore with the chef and visit local markets to shop for ingredients,” says McCormack. Back on board, the chef will host a cooking class using the fresh ingredients, allowing guests to become “locavores” (eaters of local foods) while sailing the high seas.

Holland America is another cruise line known for allowing passengers to learn more about food preparation and local foods. Some of its ships have demo kitchens on board and will host celebrity chefs throughout the year to lead interactive seminars. For those wanting intensive epicurean experiences, many of the specialty cruise lines, such as Crystal Cruises, feature weeklong voyages dedicated to food. Many of these programs are more gourmet food inspired with less emphasis on proper nutrition, but a dietitian can ask the chef about ingredient substitutions and healthy food preparation techniques.

Some vacation add-ons come with a price tag. Asking for special access to work with a chef or take an educational excursion may incur a fee.

Cook Like a Pro
For top chef Jill Prescott, there is no distinction between good health and fine culinary arts. She believes the two go hand-in-hand in that proper cooking techniques guarantee wholesome meals.

Dietitians looking to sharpen their culinary skills can study under Prescott, a cookbook author and host of the popular PBS series Jill Prescott’s Ecole de Cuisine at the Osthoff Resort on Elkhart Lake in Wisconsin. Located just outside Milwaukee in Kettle Moraine State Forest, the full-service resort hosts her Ecole de Cuisine (French for cooking school) founded by Prescott as an authentic French-style culinary destination for home chefs, along with a holistic spa and a beautiful natural setting.

Prescott, who trained at top Parisian culinary schools and studied under Julia Child, presents cooking classes with the philosophy that fine French cooking can be taught in an accessible, relaxing manner. She founded her first culinary school in Wisconsin in 1988 and joined the Osthoff Resort in 2006. Prescott was more recently based in California, where she offered classes with themes of wine and organic foods, the latter being of particular interest to RDs. She decided to return to the Midwest when she had the opportunity to offer her school to more people.

Classes, which are limited to 10 people in the kitchen, vary from three- or five-day courses to weekend classes to even one-hour wine-pairing workshops. Topics include artisan breads, soups, sauces, grilling, and chocolate desserts. In addition to Prescott’s devoted students, who follow her from California to locations across the country, classes attract all types of professionals—from healthcare specialists to corporate executives. She says that individuals with high-stress jobs flock to cooking for relaxation.

Although French cooking conjures thoughts of heavy sauces and butter, healthier dishes are also mainstays of French cuisine, and Prescott encourages classic cooking techniques as a means to cut calories. She says that by knowing the correct ways to work with food and being well grounded in theory, an at-home cook can learn to prepare a spectacular dessert, as well as poach a pear.

In addition to her cooking organic course, Prescott discusses the importance of organic ingredients, sustainable agriculture, and supporting local farmers at the start of every class. “For a lot of the people, learning about how their food is produced and how high-quality ingredients taste is a real ‘aha’ moment. Students leave here wanting to pay more attention to what they are eating and buying,” Prescott says.

Many hotel guests come for the spa or for special events at the Osthoff Resort, such as the annual “Jazz on the Vine” in May. Then they discover the cooking school. The school’s various activities allow all family members to participate in something of interest. Children can take part in the experience by attending the Culinary Kids program, in which they can learn to bake something from scratch (beyond simply mixing ingredients) and treat their parents to their creations.

Cooking programs such as Prescott’s give RDs an arsenal of new tools and, more importantly, ideas and suggestions for recipe modifications that make healthy cooking exciting and fresh. “I think nutrition begins with the products you use,” says Prescott. Her kitchen relies on in-season produce and purchases from local, organic farmers. The Ecole de Cuisine has its own garden that cooking school students can tour and learn more about growing organic produce. Currently, the grounds provide a steady supply of several varieties of heirloom tomatoes, herbs, and berries, all grown without pesticides. Next summer, the garden will expand to include more food that will go straight to Prescott’s kitchen.

Hydroponics 101
The CuisinArt Resort & Spa in Anguilla, amid the Leeward Islands of the British West Indies in the Caribbean, is a luxury resort with beautiful pools and beaches, a top-notch spa, and, as the name implies, delicious food. It is distinctly different from other hotels in that dietitians can bring some of the island’s flavor home with them to share with their clients by taking cooking classes and learning how to use dozens of fresh, local foods.

The food at the resort tastes amazingly fresh, not because it is flown in each day like at other resorts but because it is grown on the resort’s premises in state-of-the-art hydroponics facilities. Guests can get to know the farming technique of hydroponics, which involves growing food without soil—water, fertilizer solutions, and key plant growth nutrients are used instead—through personalized tours of the hydroponics farm or aerogardens. Hydroponics has been used for decades, and the resort boasts the careful supervision of the food’s cultivation by Howard M. Resh, PhD, one of the experts. Resh has written several books, including a textbook and a beginner’s guide titled Hydroponic Home Food Gardens, and oversaw the construction of CuisinArt’s hydroponics farm and others like it around the world—from Venezuela to Taiwan.

“Our farm provides more than enough produce and herbs for the entire resort. We’re unique in that the [resort] owner values the fresh ingredients and wants to have this component be a part of CuisinArt,” says Resh. CuisinArt’s proprietor was first inspired by the hydroponics at the Epcot Center and wanted to bring guests the freshest produce in a similar manner. Dietitians can learn more about aerogardens and the principles behind them by visiting Resh’s Web site at www.howardresh.com.

The fruits, herbs, and vegetables grown within the CuisinArt grounds in the hydroponics greenhouse and at the organic farm include tomatoes, lettuces, eggplant, cucumbers, peppers, squash, and broccoli rabe. There are endless varieties of herbs—lavender, three kinds of basil, arugula, microgreens, thyme, and several types of parsley. The ingredients used add vibrant flavor and aroma not only to dishes but also to dried spa treatments. Tours of the facilities take place three times per week and are open to guests of other resorts in Anguilla, as well as to local schools. Resh is willing to create special tours for dietitians with advance notice.

Dietitians can take advantage of seeing firsthand how the produce is cultivated through hydroponics and taste the ingredients in CuisinArt’s food. With regard to the use of herbs, RDs are often at a loss to recommend herbs for cooking as effectively as they would like. The addition of herbs and spices can make sodium-restricted diets flavorful and give people a positive way to approach their cooking sans salt.

The resort also offers a hands-on lunch wherein guests can select produce from the gardens, prepare meals with a chef, and then dine together. Further, the new Chef’s Table program involves a private dinner at the resort’s own Kitchen Stadium (think Iron Chef) in which the head chef leads participants through a six-course meal with total access to the food. Guests can take home recipes, learn ways to use herbs as flavor enhancers, and try culinary techniques between relaxing by the pool.

Further, many of the Caribbean recipes showcased should interest dietitians working with clients from Anguilla, St. Martin, Jamaica, or other nearby islands who can learn how to use ethnic ingredients.

Travel Tips
Before dialing a travel agent or searching Expedia for a vacation package with educational options, McCormack advises people to do a little legwork first. She recommends that travelers think about what they would like to experience and contact hotels or cruise lines to ask specifically for “extras” to make their time special. Other tips include planning far in advance and reviewing what hotels offer to ensure all family members will enjoy the vacation.

The opportunities for dietitians to grow as professionals while catching some sun or skiing powdery slopes are ever increasing. McCormack expects 2008 travel trends to include use of more organic and fresh, local ingredients at resorts and on cruises, healthier menu options, and gourmet cooking experiences offered in more locations.

Finding Inspiration
Dietitians can analyze food choices, whether recorded in a food diary or explained quickly by a patient in a clinical setting, and suggest quick fixes for lowering fat, sugar, and salt. Yet, working with people over an extended period of time requires a never-ending supply of ideas to make healthy eating taste great. Vacations just might be the ticket to finding delicious inspiration.

Kimberly Lutes Haider, RD, is a nutrition communications consultant and a freelance writer presently based in Singapore. She worked in the food and nutrition public relations sector in London, New York, and Chicago.

Vacation Planning Made Easy
Check out these food/culinary travel agents:


CuisinArt Resort & Spa

McCabe World Travel

The Osthoff Resort

Travel + Leisure’s 125 Travel Super-Agents