The Oaks at Ojai is a sliver of paradise nestled in the hippie-chic town of Ojai just north of Los Angeles. Feeling a bit like Wild West-meets-spiritual sanctuary town, it’s definitely eco-friendly with a uber-healthy vibe. And there in the center of town is the Oaks at Ojai, a destination spa with a long history, opening its doors in 1977 by founder and exercise champion, Sheila Cluff. As the ‘grandmother of aerobics,’ still teaching upward of five classes nearly every week at the Oaks, Sheila passed the official reigns as President and CEO to her daughter, Cathy, in 2010.
Of many wonderful experiences during a recent stay, sitting down with the Oaks’ Executive Chef Christine Denney (and enjoying her spa cuisine) was a highlight. Here are some of Chef Christine’s insights.
Personal journey informs professional outlook.
She has an inspiring personal story. At a significant milestone in her life, Chef Christine embarked one Thanksgiving on a weight-loss journey of one year and 50 pounds. “I realized that if I didn’t nourish myself well, I couldn’t really provide well for others.” And since that time, she shares with spa guests each week how important it is to fine tune their own food and exercise routine to their individual goals and lifestyle. She speaks from her experience and creates menus with both creativity and a sense of empathy for the Oaks’ guests’ unique goals. (Her preferred exercise? Outdoor cycling. This wasn’t surprising really: the area is tranquil and scenic, and there’s a bike trail leading directly to the Pacific Ocean a few miles away.)
What Chef Christine teaches.
In a gentle and humble way, she teaches strategies to help guests love the nutritious foods she and her staff prepare during their stay. She showcases a variety of snack options, hosts food demos while providing samples and recipes, and instructs through a compassionate and sharing conversation with guests. She maintains that while the spa staff is absolutely “not the food police”, the Oaks do keep a controlled environment where a regular routine is established and mindful eating is encouraged.
Her essential kitchen tool (besides a good knife, of course).
An immersion blender and food processor she had two essentials. For spa recipes like soups, dips and dressings, she can produce a consistent and rich, creamy texture to please the palate while saving calories and without adding extra fat. Oh, and that food processor comes in handy especially for the fantastically flavorful Mango, Pineapple, Banana Sorbet, one of the favorites among spa guests.
All in a day’s diet at the Oaks at Ojai 3 tasty meals, 3 snacks.
If you want simple, tasty food, that caters to your health goals (and also accommodates food preferences and allergies), the Oaks a Ojai offers a lovely meal plan as part of every guest’s stay. Chef Christine says the general diet is between 1,200-1,300 calories and favors good nutrition for weight loss. There’s an athletic portion for individuals with higher calorie needs or who are doing extra activity, along with a few specials like a high fiber or high protein salad alternative. The day consists of three nutritious meals and three snack times. Breakfast and lunch are served in the Libbey Lounge, which has dining tables, or you can eat poolside if you wish. Dinner is in the dining room served by wait staff at 6:15 each evening. Seasonal salads, like the Fresh Strawberry Salad with Almonds, Avocado & Basil, are served frequently. At 10:45 am, guests pause in their morning schedule to enjoy a broth break, made from fresh cooked and blended vegetables. At 2:45 pm between classes, a seasonal platter overflows with veggie crudit© and daily dips from fresh salsa to spa-ranch to hummus. At 4:45 pm, fruit smoothies emerge from the kitchen. They’re small about 4 ounces in adorably small cups but just the right amount for a quick pick-me-up between exercise classes.
What she hopes the guests ‘take home’.
Chef Christine watches guests to see signs of a ‘connection’ happening around how important it is to feed oneself well. She encourages guests with simple steps to help them learn to eat the foods that they love and that are also good for them. She believes that “taking care of yourself is really the greatest thing that you can do for yourself. It’s the real reward.”
Best compliment she’s received as a chef.
She finds many small daily rewards working with her staff, but her best guest compliment ever was when a couple asked, having enjoyed her cooking during throughout their stay, “would you like to come move in with us?!” Chef Christine was flattered, but lucky for us, she’s still Chef at the Oaks, where we can enjoy her cuisine each week throughout the year.
The Oaks at Ojai, winner of numerous Spafinder Wellness Readers’ Choice and Travel & Leisure Awards, is located 90-minutes north of Los Angeles. Featuring 46 guest rooms and a full program of fitness including daily hikes, the Oaks provides nutritious and tasty meals to fuel those active bodies while helping guests unwind and get a jumpstart on their health goals.
Wendy Bazilian is a doctor of public health, registered dietitian and freelance writer in San Diego. She is a nutrition consultant to the spa industry and Co-Founder of Bazilian’s Health Clinic with her husband and business partner, Dr. Jason Bazilian. Dr. Wendy is author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet (Rodale). Find her on facebook at www.facebook.com/bazilians