tHE dooR to Food HEaVEn A Delicious Day Spent at Rancho La

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					                   tHE dooR to Food HEaVEn
                   A Delicious Day Spent at Rancho La Puerta
                                         story and photographs By CandICe Woo

As our motor coach winds its
way south towards this morn-
ing’s destination, Rancho La
Puerta, we drive through the
towns of Jamul and Dulzura
and past the surrounding hill-
side chaparral, dotted with
mountain lilacs and other wild-
flowers. I gaze out the window
at the picturesque scene and
wonder how much the land-
scape has changed since the
ranch’s founder, Deborah Sze-
kely, and her husband Edmond
first arrived in the San Diego
area as the Second World War
was being waged in Edmond’s
native Europe.
    Accustomed to an uncon-
ventional life, Deborah grew up
in Brooklyn with her mother,
the president of a vegetarian
society, who, when fed up with
                                                                        Salvador Tinajero bringing in the day’s harvest
the quality of fresh produce in
New York, moved the family to                                                 culinary destination, still owned and operated by Deborah and her
Tahiti where they learned about local food traditions and how to live         family. Their six-acre organic farm on the property, called Tres Estrellas,
off the land.                                                                 supplies fresh produce to the ranch’s spa cuisine restaurant and is also
    Deborah found a kindred spirit when she met Edmond, who was a             the site of La Cocina que Canta, a recent ranch addition that includes a
philosopher, scientist and writer, authoring books on the connection          45-square-foot cooking school and dining area.
between mind, body and spirit and advocating a diet of pure foods                 In the past, a trip to Rancho La Puerta necessitated a weeklong stay,
with little to no meat. An oft-practiced lifestyle today, but revolution-     but their new Saturday one-day schedule provides greater accessibility
ary back then.                                                                to locals who are interested in a condensed version of the ranch experi-
    He believed that San Diego County and the surrounding area had            ence.
the best climate in which to pursue this healthy way of life and so, in           We reach the Tecate border and, after a very brief wait, drive the
1940, the Szekelys set up a health school just south of the border in         remaining few miles to the ranch. On the way, I spot a line of taquerias,
Tecate, welcoming guests for exercise, relaxation and wholesome meals         bustling open-air restaurants advertising a variety of tacos, each more
for $17.50 a week, bring your own tent. The name Rancho La Puerta,            delicious-sounding than the next. As I’m not too experienced with spa
or Ranch of the Door, comes from two oak trees that formed an arch,           cuisine and a bit unsure about what awaits us, food-wise, on this trip,
or doorway, in front of the original campsite.                                I contemplate how I’m going to get the bus to stop and let me off for a
    What started on a patch of land has since grown into a 3,000-acre         bite on our way back to San Diego.
ranch, which has become an internationally renowned spa, fitness and              In a few minutes, though, I’m distracted by our arrival at the ranch,

16        SPRing 2008
          SUmmER 2008                            EdiblE San diEgo
                                                 EdiblE San diEgo
where we’re greeted by a rustically beautiful set of red tile–roofed build-     tion programs, including the Culinary Institute of America at Grey-
ings, of all shapes and sizes, which sprawl out in a wide, lush valley at the   stone in the Napa Valley.
foot of Mount Kuchumaa. We settle in and choose an activity to start                Designed by the Szekelys daughter Sarah, the Tres Estrellas garden
the day. Some sign up for a lowland hike among the 40 miles of trails           awes me at first sight with rows and rows of fruits and vegetables that
that surround the ranch while others take in a massage or exercise class.       unfurl like plush, colorful carpet along the base of the nearby moun-
I’m eager to explore, so I opt to take a leisurely walk around the estate.      tains. Salvador Tinajero, the head gardener who has tended the garden
I first visit the Szekelys original house, a cozy pioneer adobe, still stand-   for 20 years, shepherds us into the field to harvest the ingredients that
ing in the center of the ranch’s current location. As I exit the home, I        we’ll be cooking with later in the afternoon. Strolling past heirloom and
hear rustling in the bushes and turn to see a small quail pop out and           native plants, including leafy lettuces, near-Technicolor red and yellow
skitter across the path in front of me. A little while later, while mean-       Swiss chard and beds overflowing with wildflowers, we pull up a large
dering along another path, someone points out a red-tailed hawk nest            basket full of green garlic bulbs, fat carrots and sturdy white onions.
up in a tall tree. It feels unfamiliar and quite fantastic to be so out of my   Though the garden is grown organically, thoughtful companion plant-
element in the midst of all this nature.                                        ing keeps all the produce remarkably unblemished. I’m most excited
    Our group meets back up for lunch in the main dining room and               by the mulberry tree at the entrance to the garden, off which we pluck
refuels from a beautiful buffet that reflects the abundant bounty of the        dark, sweet berries to snack on.
ranch’s garden, featuring plates of roasted vegetables, including my fa-            We bring our crops into the cocina, housed in a gorgeous hacienda-
vorite cauliflower and fennel, baked yams sweetened with agave syrup,           style building, high-ceilinged and airy, accented by colorful handmade
platters of fresh fruit and cheese and a bit of smoked local tuna made          Mexican Talavera tiles. The grand exhibition kitchen is any chef ’s dream,
from fish purchased at seafood markets of Ensenada. After our meal,             with a bank of cooking ranges lining one wall and an immense center
another walk leads me onto The Spiral, a reflexology foot path made up          island for prep and chopping. The school’s lead chef/instructor, Jesus
of a swirl of smooth stones of varying size. And later, I sit in the shade      Gonzalez, whose award-winning farm-to-table recipes based on the
alongside one of the ranch pools and feel properly and refreshingly un-         healthful cuisine of ancient Mexico were first developed at the Golden
plugged from my normally hectic world.                                          Door spa and now here. He greets us with our dinner menu, a seven-
    We reconvene again and pile into vans that will take us the short dis-      course feast that we’ll be cooking together over the next few hours.
tance to the cooking school, La Cocina que Canta or The Kitchen That                We split up into pairs and my cooking partner and I luck out with
Sings. Riding along with us is the school’s culinary director, Antonia          our selection, an appetizer of homemade corn tortillas and vegetarian
Allegra, a respected food writer who has launched many food educa-              mole. He’s a novice cook and I’m a weekend one, but we don’t lack

                                                                                                   SUmmER 2008             17
                                                   Josh Kopelman, Elizabeth Zuniga cooking in kitchen
for enthusiasm, high-fiving and encouraging each other as Elizabeth           our labor, so we doff our aprons and dig in. My team’s mole is delicious,
Zuniga, another school chef, looks on. She imparts cooking tips along         smoky and sweet, but I also really enjoy the grilled red snapper with
the way, showing us how to lightly oil our hands before mincing the           chipotle-peanut sauce, flaky filo cups filled with homemade gravlax and
jalapeños that we’ll add to the Maseca flour for the tortillas, so as not     savory spring onion ice cream and the nutty black quinoa and cranber-
to transfer the stinging juices onto our skin. I find the process of mole-    ry salad. We drink wine, both red and white, from Adobe Guadalupe
making fascinating, as we build the flavor profile of the sauce by first      Vineyards in neighboring Baja wine country, while Francisco Quijada,
roasting three types of dried chilies in the oven with a mix of nuts, seeds   another kitchen assistant, honors us with some songs on his guitar.
and spices before sautéing the mixture in a pan with onions, garlic, to-         At the end of our dinner, as the daylight turns to dusk and we pre-
matoes, vegetable broth and grainy Mexican chocolate.                         pare to head home, my earlier thoughts of stopping in Tecate to eat
    Our cooking time flies by in an exhilarating whirlwind of activity        tacos have been forgotten, though they looked tempting enough to
and before long the buffet dining table is laden with all the fruits of       warrant a return eating expedition on another occasion. On this day
                                                                              though, I am more than sated by my Rancho La Puerta experience. To
                                                                              have cooked and eaten vegetables that were still-warm from the soil and
                                                                              have the chance to visit such a restorative and unique place has left me
                                                                              with both a full belly and very contented heart.

                                                                              Rancho La Puerta
                                                                              Saturdays at the Ranch
                                                                              First and third Saturdays of each month $175 pp

                                                                              Candice Woo is a San Diego food writer. For a restaurant tip or just to talk
                                                                              food, she can be reached at

18        SUmmER 2008                             EdiblE San diEgo

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