Trips That Will Change Your Life: Learn to… Be The Next Rachael Ray

A demonstration, a massage, a hike, another demonstration … wow, cooking’s a breeze

IT WAS AT my first dinner at Red Mountain Spa — a nutrition-focused luxury retreat plunked down in the majestic crimson mountains of southern Utah — that I came clean. I had joined a handful of fellow spa-goers at the community table, a spot for solo travelers who preferred to dine with people rather than just a book or their thoughts. Forking up bites of Pacific snapper, we bonded over a table-wide interest in Oprah (love her!) and Eat, Pray, Love (love it!), and chatted about what brought us to Red Mountain. One 50-something woman from Alaska had been 15 times, addicted to the hikes. A chirpy mother of two from Minneapolis who suffered various maladies was here to detox her way back to health. When it came to me, I was prepared to give the short answer: “To take a few cooking lessons.” But, fueled by sisterhood and sauvignon blanc, I added, “My boyfriend gave me a really nice pan.” They nodded. “For Hanukkah,” I said. And then: “I’d been hinting for a watch.” And, finally: “I didn’t want to do anything with that pan except maybe hit him with it.”

[sidebar]But, I told my new friends, I tried to consider his perspective. I suppose I am someone who might seem like she would enjoy getting fancy kitchen gear. I like cooking — or at least, the idea of cooking. Yes, I had gotten into a rut as frozen as my Trader Joe’s suppers, but I TiVo every episode of Top Chef. I read cookbooks. Occasionally I whip up my signature chicken scaloppine (“signature” meaning the only recipe I know by heart). And before the holidays, I had, on a whim, signed up for a trip to Red Mountain Spa, complete with a five-day “Eat Well, Feel Well” culinary seminar that would include cooking lessons. To my boyfriend, the pan was like the leather briefcase you give the new MBA with no job yet: a show of optimism, a vote of confidence. So on my trip, I had decided, I would let go of the gift angst and strive to really learn a few things — to live up to the pan, in all its shiny ceramic-titanium glory.

Red Mountain is a place for release, and for resolve. What with the genial warmth of the community table, the striking serenity of the sandstone cliffs and lava fields, and the cool, clean air, the place feels exactly like what it’s meant to be: a spot to recharge, then start over. The vibe is high-end holistic summer camp. The uniform: yoga pants and hiking boots. And the lodgings (based on my own room) are modest in size but generous where it counts: an enormous tub and a cloud-like king-size bed. From sunrise until 10 at night, campers trot from spa treatments to fitness classes to life-coaching seminars to hikes and horseback rides through the nearby canyons.

My cooking classes would consist of two-hour lessons each afternoon, leaving plenty of time for sightseeing, massages, and my favorite stretching class, wherein we spent an hour in a high-ceilinged studio flooded with light, wrapping our bodies in various ways around a giant FitBall. It was easy to contemplate a few days filled with nothing but this bliss and some girl-talk at the community table, but I had signed up to learn how to cook healthy, tasty meals — and that meant finally changing out of my Prana pants, tying my hair back, and reporting to class ready to get my hands dirty.

It turns out that your hands stay clean: The lessons are like watching the Food Network with smell-o-vision. Four of us sat at a counter wrapped around a display kitchen at one end of the sunny dining room and watched the resort’s lanky, laid-back executive chef, Chad Luethje, blow through dozens of dishes at an Iron Chef pace. He focused on teaching basic cooking techniques that make lots of types of food healthier, rather than on showing us recipes that we’d learn by rote. Over the five days, he gave us what amounted to a two-inch stack of handouts, mostly with templates for freestyling salads, rubs and risottos of our own.

He passed every ingredient he used around the room for us to sniff, and as I took a whiff of sweet lemongrass, I realized that I never stop to smell things in my own kitchen. I’m too anxious about following to a tee whatever recipe is in front of me. Chad also showed us how to use cooking tools I had, until then, only ever seen in the Williams-Sonoma catalog. (Those perfect little carrot matchsticks I had always assumed were the product of precise and skillful chopping are actually produced via mandolin, a nifty gadget with razor-sharp blades that julienne veggies at different widths.) I scribbled furiously the entire time, taking notes on healthy substitutes for sugar (agave syrup or honey) and ways to create the illusion of extra salt (add lemon juice). Cooking class quickly became a highlight of the day, and I realized with some surprise that I was fully engaged when, on an early-morning hike, an expanse of oxide-red and bone-white sandstone reminded me of the mashed-potato swirl that Chad had made with red-pepper puree. I was excited to get home and try to make the dish, and the accompanying rich chocolate risotto crafted with carob and cocoa — “flavor stretchers” that are less fatty than straight chocolate.

Down from the mountains, back in Philly, my graduation goodie-bag of cool tools — a microplane zester, a silpat — was effective inspiration, and the combination of my newfound knowledge and the new toys caused a definite uptick in kitchen activity. I’m not turning out anything as ambitious as the risotto — yet — but I do make a healthier chicken scaloppine, with the help of my high-tech pan and my brand-new citrus reamer. This version has fresh lemon juice instead of the stuff that comes in the yellow squeeze bottle. (I went home, smelled the bottled stuff, and was shocked to realize that its olfactory profile is closer to Pine-Sol than to an actual lemon.) Meanwhile, I’m regularly chatting with the community-table crew via e-mail, and I’ve resolved that next year I’ll drop stronger hints as Hanukkah approaches. I’m thinking I need one of those mandolins.

IF YOU GO: Contact: Red Mountain Spa, 1275 East Red Mountain Circle, Ivins, Utah, 877-246-4453, Get there: Two-hour shuttle ride from Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport. Details: “Eat Well, Feel Well” culinary-school package, from $385 per person, per night, including all meals, classes and some activities (i.e., tai chi and personal training), plus a gift bag if you enroll in the cooking class. No kids under 12.

INSIDER TIP: On the fitness side of things, don’t miss the METAbeat cardio/metabolic assessment with health-services manager Brad Crump; he personalizes a 12-week program to render you more aerobically efficient even after you leave.