If you’ve breezed through my first entry on my visit to the Oaks at Ojai, you probably came to the conclusion that I was happily surprised at every turn with this amiable, laid back retreat in the heart of Ojai.
Given that the Oaks calls itself a “fitness and weight loss destination spa,” this food critic gal had her doubts about the quality of said spa cuisine. Really, how can you enjoy breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks in a single day with the entire lot of it totaling 1,200 calories?
For Oaks’ Chef Christine Denney, this has been the love of the game for nine years. A resident of Ojai for 35 years, Chef initially worked at the Ranch House for 17 years as a pastry chef.
“Even though I was a chef for much more than just pastry, I have to admit that I weighed 60 pounds more than I do today when I came over to the Oaks,” she says with a big grin. “So, you might say I was the first experiment in creating a lifestyle habit of being aware of what you’re eating.”
After an initial year of learning the ropes in the Oaks kitchen, Christine began branching out, seeking ways to provide healthy, tasteful cuisine beyond the “nonfat” label that so many overweight people seek out.
“It seems that when people try to cut calories, they begin looking for non-fat items,” says Chef Christine. “Your body needs a daily dose of good fats, though, and this is where I really started on my own path here with the spa menu. I want people to be eating plenty of food – all day long – that is fulfilling and enjoyable while still being extremely healthy.”
While the Oaks kitchen prepares vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free and gluten-free/Ciliac menus on specific request, Chef Christine says the vast majority of guests eat fish, seafood and chicken. Further, the kitchen never cooks with or finishes with any salt – ever. Herbs and freshly-made salsas pinch hit for the lack of salt and, frankly, provided more depth of flavor to the dishes.
“When you stop with the salt, you’re cleansing your palate,” says Christine. “You get the real taste of something.”
“For me, the fun of this position is in creating beyond the usual salad, carrot sticks and beans world of the dieting individual,” she continues. “I want a chicken dish to be just as tasty as our vegan dishes, and both require the same amount of creativity and research in our spa menu to hit that mark.”
Plenty of great food, all day long
During my three-day stay at the Oaks, I was surprised at how full I felt. “That’s the fiber,” says Chef Christine. “When guests stay with us, they’re eating a lot more vegetables each day than they normally do, and we’re careful to balance that amount of fiber with good, clean proteins so that they don’t leave the table feeling hungry.”
At the Oaks at Ojai, breakfast is more of a buffet option (and yes, the Oaks believes in making great coffee, decaf coffee, teas and fruit-enhanced water available all day long). Mid-morning, after the first round of fitness options, Chef Christine serves up a “potassium break” with variations of freshly-made vegetable juices. In the afternoon, it’s a new assortment of fruit smoothies and healthy munchies.
Lunch is served either buffet style or at the tables in the dining room, for wherever you prefer to be. Our sunny October days had most of us choosing from different entreé options and convening at patio tables by the pool. And dinner – a 4-course affair of nightly menu options with dessert – is always served in the dining room.
Because guests are always coming and going at the Oaks, new faces become familiar friends, and then rotate out to new faces and new friendships over the course of one’s stay. It’s a very welcoming, happy vibe. After all, everyone here is here on purpose – to feel better, get healthier, and re-educate themselves on just how varietal and tasty a 1,200-calorie-a-day lifestyle can be.
It’s all about the nurture.
“I think the greatest benefit of our cuisine plan here is that our guests don’t have to think about preparing or choosing how they’re going to eat,” says Chef Christine. “When all that chatter is out of your head, you can actually relax. It frees you to focus on yourself, to be more mindful of how you treat yourself and how you want to treat yourself.
“In the end, we want you to live what you believe,” she continues. “I’m in a space that’s all about that, and it’s all I want to encourage as guests share this space with me.”