A Chef’s Garden

Date April 30, 2007 at 10:00 PM

Categories Food

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Beneath sprawling cottonwoods, I stare out at the patterns of light dancing on the surface of a still pond, letting my thoughts wander. I take a deep breath and allow myself just to be.

I'm standing on the deck of Sunrise Springs, a spa and retreat center, just a few miles south of the Santa Fe plaza. And the experience I'm having is exactly the one that the owner Megan Hill, wants me to have. Thirty years ago, when she bought this magical place, she had the intention of creating a haven where stressed souls might find peace. And, thanks to years of meticulous work by a staff of sometimes 100 people, she has realized her dream.

"Everything is set up here for tranquility, for peace of mind. That's what we strive for,"€ explains General Manager Tracy Ritter, who exudes a sense of stewardship for this beautiful 70-acre property. She says that for centuries, this land has offered rest to the weary; it used to be a stagecoach stop. The people who cultivate it now have a deep appreciation for its inherent serenity, augmented by the aesthetic appeal of the organic, biodynamic Heirloom Gardens.

The gardens are planted in a half-acre circle, stone pillars standing Stonehenge-like in the middle. In homage to the four directions, flagstone paths, painstakingly set by gardener Michelle Madrid, separate the parcel into four sections. Herbs such as lemon balm, lavender, and basil are planted around the perimeter while vegetables grow in the center.

The garden's bounty finds its way to many areas of Sunrise Springs-from spa treatments to herb-infused cocktails, and most notably, dishes served at the Blue Heron, the resort's refined on-site restaurant. Executive Chef Malik Hammond works closely with Head Gardener Bob Markham in planning the crops; he fashions his summer and fall menus to make full use of the harvest. Ritter, who was once the Executive Chef at the famous Golden Door Spa, is also instrumental in garden planning.

Hammond says that when he found out that Thomas Keller, of the renowned California restaurant the French Laundry, was working with an in-house garden, he knew it was something he wanted to try. After all, everyone knows that one of the secrets of fine cuisine is fresh ingredients, and you can't get much better than a salad made with veggies hand-picked that morning by the chef himself.

"Some of my best moments here have been spent picking green beans,"€ says Hammond. But helping to manage the gardens has been a lot of work, and there have been challenges, such as the temptation to over-diversify. Hammond tried growing a large variety of produce, but then there was only enough of any one particular item to last the restaurant, say, a week. This year, Hammond is guiding Markham to grow several core crops-tomatoes, green beans, peppers, pea shoots, squashes, and herbs-with the goal of meeting the resort's needs for the entire summer.

In addition to using Sunrise Springs produce, the chef makes his own yogurt, bread, herb-infused oils and vinegars and, this year, mozzarella cheese-all organic. And what he can't make or get from the gardens, he buys from local growers. The Blue Heron is a partner in the Farm to Restaurant Project, which means it promotes the use of locally-grown produce, dairy, and livestock in its cuisine. So Hammond has a close relationship with the Santa Fe Farmers' Market and the folks who sell there.

It's April when I visit Sunrise Springs. The land is just being prepared for planting, so it's too early for me to try any dishes made from on-site produce. I decide to check out the Blue Heron anyway, and am well pleased, indeed. I dine on a sublimely tender, juicy curry-encrusted salmon in an almond-butter sauce with shaved apricots as well as an inventive and refreshing homemade basil ice cream. During growing season, the basil will come straight from the Sunrise Springs gardens.

Hammond's training, which includes a stint working under James McClullum, a former sous-chef of Wolfgang Puck, as well as time at local restaurants such as Bistro 315 and the Coyote Café, is apparent in the quality of his cuisine. With a new menu featuring a pea shoot, arugula, and nasturtium salad as well as an heirloom tomato, basil, and mozzarella salad, I'm certainly looking forward to summer!

According to Markham and Ritter, the gardens that produce such earthly delights are a work in progress. Referring to the old saying "you are what you eat,"€ Markham, who joined Sunrise Springs just this year, explains that the quality of earth determines the quality of the produce. His goal is clear. He wants "Malik to bite into a tomato grown in such rich soil that he says, "€˜Wow, what is this!'"€

To help achieve his aim, Markham has turned to Rudolf Steiner's philosophy of biodynamic farming. One of its central tenets, sustainability, is already a guiding principle of Sunrise Springs. For instance, the water from the ponds is used to irrigate the gardens, which in turn, "feed"€ the restaurant. And, now, thanks to Markham there is a composting program in place.

"One of the great things of working closely with Malik is that he told the cooks right off the bat: there are two buckets, and one is just for vegetable scraps,"€ Markham relates.

Besides vegetable matter, he will also use mulched leaves and worms to seal in moisture and increase the calcium and phosphate content of the soil.

According to the biodynamic philosophy, good soil is not only nutrient-dense but also undisturbed, and that means avoiding the use of pesticides. "The soil has two enemies: chemicals and a rototiller,"€ Markham asserts. "There is ten times more biological activity going on below the ground than above it."€ To protect that activity, Steiner devised a mixture of herbs, including chamomile and valerian, which Markham will use in lieu of pesticides. One of the wonderful things about these gardens is that, throughout their 30-year history, they have always been organic. And Markham plans to keep them that way.

While the gardens are obviously a key component of Sunrise Springs, they are only a part of what the retreat center has to offer. Ritter encourages locals to just come for the day and spend time exploring the property and its many amenities.

As my day here comes to an end, I am struck by how every aspect of Sunrise Springs is imbued with a palpable intention for peaceful connection-with the earth, community, and self. I will definitely return to this carefully cultivated sanctuary. If Hill and Ritter have their wish, you will join me. Perhaps to sit beneath the mulberry tree, gaze at ripples on water, and if you are lucky, catch a glimpse of that elusive bird-yes, the magnificent blue heron.

Sunrise Springs describes itself as "Best Getaway without Getting Away"€. A short drive south of Santa Fe, Sunrise Springs offers an array of lodging, meals and activities. In addition to the Blue Heron Restaurant, you can relax in the Lotus Bar which offers unique herb-infused specialty drinks as well as "the usual."€ At the Spa Samadhi, you can choose massage, yoga, hot tubbing or a dip in the chlorine-free pool. Don't miss browsing through the Archetype Boutique or sign up for one of their many class offferings including a cooking class with Chef Hammond or General Manager, Tracy Ritter. Book a stay in one of the casitas and spend your time wandering through the koi ponds or taking a meditative walk through the labyrinth. For more information, check their website at www.sunrisesprings.com.

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