The Hearth, the dining room at Canyon Ranch Woodside, is really the heart of the place—with a beat set by a 31-year-old self-taught executive chef with a touch of genius. Take note of this name: Isabelle Jackson Nunes. She earned her stripes at places like Apple and Pinterest, and found her passion in the regenerative farms in the Santa Cruz mountains. Her creations sound unlikely, are indescribable, remarkably delicious—and unquestionably healthy, whatever your dietary restrictions. Nunes takes spa cuisine to a heavenly new level, and unlike other Canyon Ranch properties, she will pair her food with the perfect local wine, sold only by the bottle. This food is truly made with passion, and with a staff of five, she prides herself as running “the kindest kitchen” in the biz. We sat down with her after a memorable dinner one night to learn more.
Do you have a family tradition in restaurants?
Yes. My great grandmother Maria Bustamante owned a Mexican Restaurant in Los Altos called Estrellita, founded in 1958—the oldest restaurant in Los Altos. Estrellita was born from Maria selling burritos out of her living room. Eventually, she rented out the restaurant space next door, and the restaurant is where my mother, my grandmother, and my great grandmother spent a lot of time and adopted a love for cooking.
When I was growing up, my family almost always had a garden. My mother ran a daycare from our home when my brother and I were young, and I remember spending a lot of time outside and doing crafts related to food. She cooked every meal, every day, and I didn’t eat cafeteria lunch like most kids (although I did volunteer to work in the cafeteria whenever possible). Needless to say, the “sweet” part of my lunch consisted of fruit and we always ate really fresh food. We ate really simply at home. My mother was a good cook although not an incredibly adventurous one.
What was your “aha” moment when you realized you had a gift for cooking?
When I was 17, I went to work at a Portuguese deli called Neto’s in Santa Clara, where I was always getting into trouble for being curious in the kitchen. (I was hired to work the register.) I really learned about Portuguese food from talking to the cooks. Next, I went to The Mountain Winery in Saratoga, where they gave me an opportunity to work the cold station. I didn’t have any formal training, so I was lucky to get that job. After, I worked my way up to Saute´ [where], I started getting passed up for promotions by men who had been formally trained. I knew I would not continue to grow there. So I went to Michelin, and that was when I knew I would dedicate myself to this work. I loved the attention to detail. I loved the discipline. I loved the ingredients and how precious they were treated. I love the fast yet ever-so-delicate pace of a fine dining kitchen. It was like learning a dance.
Towards the end of my stint in Michelin, I realized I needed to learn about management, operations, and financials, so I started taking on corporate work. I would work corporate by day and Michelin by night. That took its toll. Thankfully, my first five years of corporate work continued to keep me hands-on cooking. The last corporate account I opened, I stayed in for three years and it was all management. That was great experience, but at 27, I knew I needed to go back to cooking. I wanted a smaller team, a smaller kitchen, I wanted to work with ingredients I could recognize, farmers I believed in, and guests who were genuinely interested in the dishes I was preparing.
Once I learned about regenerative agriculture and the tenants of permaculture, I couldn’t “unsee it.”
So I prayed for that and Skylonda Lodge [now Canyon Ranch Woodside] appeared. I fell in love with the property, I hired a very talented cook as my Sous Chef, Melda Erbatur, and she became my best friend and partner in the kitchen. This is also when I decided I would divorce traditional kitchen hierarchies and create partnerships with my Team. And it was this growth period that also taught me to trust the process, invest in the right people, and leverage their passion and creativity to grow the team and build a healthy culture—which honestly doesn’t otherwise exist in most places.
What hooked you on regenerative farming?
When Canyon Ranch acquired the property, we closed for renovation for a long time, and I spent a lot of that time at our other locations. But when I was in California, I drove up and down the coast, emailing farmers and ranchers, trying to make local connections. Even then, I had no idea I would fall in love with agriculture, but after my visit to the home ranch of Doniga Markegard, everything changed. Once I learned about regenerative agriculture and the tenants of permaculture, I couldn’t “unsee it.” I decided to go all in. I also knew that our clientele could have an influence, I had the right audience, and I knew I could inspire people to visit their farmers markets and take this approach beyond their stay at Canyon Ranch to their homes, to their companies, even to the world.
The ingredients speak for themselves: They taste better, they’re more nutritionally dense, and they capture carbon as opposed to creating a carbon footprint. Locally sourced foods support our local economy and encourage hardworking farmers and ranchers to continue doing things that are both good for people and good for the planet. How we eat is the most environmentally significant action we take every single day—and our choices really can change the world. I’m obsessed with this. Second to cooking, sourcing is my favorite part of my job.
Tell me how you source your food, and some of your favorite things to forage.
I ask a lot of questions! I lean on people I trust in the ag community. I also gain a ton of perspective from listening to guests. Right now, my favorite things to forage are redwood sorrel and miner’s lettuce. I love how whimsical these two ingredients are. They grow in abundance, so I don’t need to worry about taking too much or leaving a trace. They are also very opposite in flavor, redwood sorrel is sour and miner’s lettuce is clean and to me tastes like earth and rain.
What spices do you have in your emergency “go bag?”
Cumin, coriander, allspice, smoked paprika and bay leaf.
Anything else you’d like to add?
[Laughs] I can talk about food for hours. I’m often asked about my creative process and the answer is still kind of unknown to me. I value recipes and honor traditions, but I also whole-heartedly believe that there is no “right” way to do things. While there are plenty of wrong ways to execute a dish, the number of “right” ways is endless.
Maybe because I didn’t go to culinary school, I’ve never really felt like I have or need clear boundaries. For example, I spent a lot of time in pastry and I apply those techniques and ideas to my savory cooking. I believe that my work comes through me, and I allow for that inspiration to come at any moment. Mostly I look to nature for visual inspiration. I try to tap into all of my senses. Aroma, texture, flavor, and sight. I think it’s important to challenge ourselves and grow our pallets, but I also believe food should be approachable and pleasurable. If we aren’t nourishing all of our senses, I’m not sure what the point is! I also don’t believe in diet culture or fads. Every body is different, and I think we should tap into the signals our body is sharing with us to guide how we eat intuitively.
Mary Bemis is Founder & Editorial Director of InsidersGuidetoSpas.com. She is a pioneering spa journalist, most recently honored as one of the "Top 30 Influential Voices Transforming Wellness." She is an inaugural recipient of Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and was honored by ISPA with its distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She is a Global Wellness Day Advisor, and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.
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