Dining in Coachella
While the desert valley of Palm Springs, La Quinta and Rancho Mirage have long been a playground for the entertainment industry – think Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, snowbirds from Canada and vacationers from around the world, a progressive dining scene with notable chefs has begun to emerge within the past decade; golf may still be the main attraction, but ‘dining in Coachella’ helps make the drive from San Diego worthwhile.
Travelers to the Palm Springs desert region typically go for the golf – a popular pastime in the valley with nearly 270 courses and almost as many golf clubs. In taking note of the region’s “blessed” fairway greens, both the PGA and LPGA host annual tournaments in the winter; the most recognizable being, The Humana Challenge (previously known as the Bob hope Classic) and the Kraft Nabisco Championship (an LPGA “major”).
Given the number of visitors, the Coachella Valley has also become a destination for fine dining. The top tier of dining away from clubs includes Cuistot and La Spiga Ristorante Italiano, both of which are deserving of reservations. One of the top toques at a private venue is Chef Hugh Duffy at The Reserve. Not only is The Reserve a spectacular club with beautiful residences, but it also has outstanding dining; the club is known for their Annual Governor’s Cup tournament and the Parker 95 dinner in February.
More readily accessible to the public, as well as members, are La Quinta Resort & Club [Morgan’s in the Desert with Chef Jimmy Schmidt at the helm] and Indian Wells Resort with a menu led by Chef Chris Olson. Schmidt, who has also directed Corvette Racing’s sports nutrition for the past 12 years, is known for a philosophy of nutrition and flavor – crafting what he can on-site, including fresh garden selections, oils and a spectrum of salts (i.e. porcini salt, syrah salt, cabernet salt). With a staff of 35, Olson indicated they make all of their stocks, sauces, and dressings in-house – a technique that helps to control flavor and the quality of ingredients employed. He also noted that their Pastry Chef, Juan Morales, is up for the 2012 season of Top Chefs Desserts.
From finding inspiration to crafting signature dishes, Chefs Duffy, Schmidt and Olson offer FINE readers a bit of insight to their craft. Here are their thoughts:
Q: What inspires you the most?
Hugh Duffy [The Reserve Club]: The ability to be creative on a daily basis. We run more like a free standing restaurant than a club. [He also indicated that as a part of the farm-to-table concept he enjoys working with local growers in the Coachella Valley and Thermal areas.] We can call for produce and product and it is delivered the same day.
Chris Olson [Indian Wells Resort]: A happy guest! Making sure that we are doing the best that we can with what we have, using fresh ingredients. Having the guest happy and satisfied so that they will be back is very important as is nurturing our staff and seeing our crew grow and develop.
Jimmy Schmidt [Morgan’s in the Desert]: The fresh ingredients; because of the area in which we live we get pretty much whatever we want in ingredients. It is all about the ingredients. I like big flavors, and also, big nutrition as well. The dishes are big and bold.
Q: What gets you the most excited?
Duffy: Satisfaction of diners; conversations with our members and hearing their expressions about their dining experiences.
Olson: A full dining room and we have to cutoff our reservations because we have a full house. Also, getting positive responses from guests when I go out into the dining room; [it’s all about] having people leave with a smile.
Schmidt: Every ingredient that goes into a dish adds a unique flavor, they add layers of flavor. Every component present in the dishes can be tasted. I like to have huge flavor profiles rich with flavor and not rich with butter and fat; the dishes are then incredibly pronounced in flavor.
Q: What do you like to work with the most?
Duffy: The protein I like the best is beef. It is versatile and expands the culinary experience. I also like to use infused olive oils.
Olson: Pork is pretty versatile. As a result, we have pork prime rib, green chili pork tostado, pork osso bucco, pork rack, and pork chops on the menu.
Schmidt: I like to work with celery root, reforming into raviolis, gratins and pasta, and even risotto with raw celery root cut into the shape of rice – blanched for 60 seconds and blended into a puree of celery root; it has earthiness with truffles and great nutritional value. We also have a great beef program with the guys out of Nebraska with a 1970s-style of prime beef.
Q: What spice is indispensable / that you cannot do without?
Duffy: Fresh basil.
Olson: Cumin and coriander. We buy the whole seeds and they are roasted and then cracked, then used.
Schmidt: Fresh spiced ginger. I like its nutritional qualities, emulsion qualities and flavoring. It adds layers of flavor and it is indigenous to the U.S. as well; not just an Asian thing.
Q: What chef had the most influence on your training and development?
Duffy: Wolfgang Puck. He was an inspiration with California cuisine.
Olson: I had a lot of experience with down-to-earth, realistic people including the chefs at Four Seasons Chicago (Mark Baker) and James Boyce at Loews in Coronado; [and also] Edward Becker of The Americana, a great gorge resort in New Jersey.
Schmidt: Madeleine Kamman, she absolutely was my mentor. She took me from the dark world of electrical engineering to the bright world of food and wine.
Q: Do you have a signature dish on your menu?
Duffy: A caramelized day boat scallop with braised leeks and Champagne caviar sauce. Another is a squab braised, with natural reduction with a little huckleberry in it, and Parisian vegetables in a cup on the side.
Olson: Braised short ribs and another is lobster macaroni and cheese.
Schmidt: Porcini beef tenderloin that is prepared in a vacuum treatment and flavoring, and mushrooms make it very special. We use Prime Certified Angus beef and it is the only program in this area of the world, using beef raised to 1970 prime standard. I cut my teeth at 21 in Detroit when ‘men were men’ and ‘prime was prime’ and three martini lunches were normal.