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Q&A: Isabelle Jackson Nunes, executive chef at Canyon Ranch Wellness Retreat

Chef connects with farmers and learns about agriculture.

How does a high-end boutique hotel chef relate to farmers and ranchers? Keep reading.

Isabelle Jackson Nunes is executive chef at Canyon Ranch Wellness Retreat, a Woodside, California, venue that caters to clients focusing on fitness, spiritual wellness, preventive care, and healthy eating.

Nunes is on a mission to deliver food to clients that is fresh and locally sourced. She’s spent a lot of time building personal relationships with farmers and ranchers to source food for the ranch’s kitchen. Connecting with producers and her community is essential to her success.

“You know, if you’re a corn and soybean and livestock producer somewhere in the Farm Belt, how does a chef in the richest zip code in the world think about food and how does it impact the producer in the Farm Belt?” she asks.

Successful Farming® magazine caught up with Nunes to help answer that, and find out more about her journey to learn more about farming and how she kept food on the table during the pandemic.

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SF: Talk about Canyon Ranch. What makes it unique?

IJN: In a general sense, it is the leader in the wellness and hospitality space and has been for the last 40 years. The founders were well ahead of their time and really wanted to create a place for people of all walks of life to come and exercise being well, which encompasses our mental health, physical health, spiritual health — really bringing us back to that sense of awareness where we are taking a true inventory of what’s going on in our life and being honest with ourselves about the path where we would like to see ourselves.

Considering how to move through life with grace, and doing that in a way that is sustainable and realistic. I decided that I would build a food program based on local agriculture in a boutique hotel environment. I was able to make that a reality, and it now has me very well connected with farmers and ranchers on the coast. Canyon Ranch has been completely on board with that trend, and our clientele really wants to know where their food is from. It’s a successful locally curated food program. Super exciting.

SF: How were you trained as a chef?

IJN: I’ve done a lot of different work in the food and beverage industry. I’ve been in the industry for 15 years and I started off in very much mom-and-pop, small businesses and grew to a concert venue. I went into Michelin dining for a little while. I’ve done catering. Then I went into the corporate sector. I went to the school of hard knocks. I didn’t go to a formal culinary school but rather learned all of my lessons through hands-on experience, which has always served me very well.

SF: How did you get connected to farmers?

IJN: I gave myself 75 miles to work within here in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I had been just driving up and down the coast, making phone calls, sending emails. Ranchers and farmers are so difficult to get ahold of. But it was really important to me to start a relationship with the community. We want to make sure that we’re supporting them and that we have their support. That is super important, right? So, the short answer to the question is that it was a lot of persistence, a lot of emails, and I took my time to really get to know the people. I find them at the farmers market. I would ask them for a tour of their farm or ranch. I offer to help on their operation. Not a lot of them took me up on it — me, an unskilled laborer, but really just putting myself out there to want to be part of their operation and what they do and who they are. I learned so much about their families and their lifestyle and that passion behind farming that drives what they do and how they do what they do, every single day. It was extremely gratifying.

SF: What are you sourcing locally?

IJN: All kinds of things. Thankfully we have wonderful produce and livestock producers out on the coast. All of my needs are sourced within 30 miles of the property. I know the farmers and ranchers really well. I get a lot of produce and lettuces, which is something that we get the most feedback from our guests on. They are amazed at how fresh and beautiful the lettuces are. There’s this idea that only the best chefs in the world can get their hands on these pristine ingredients. And that simply is not true. We’re so disconnected from food that not a whole lot of people really understand that it’s the same stuff that they’re getting at their farmers markets.

SF: How did COVID-19 impact your team?

IJN: What COVID showed us is that the program that I had going here had real resilience, and I didn’t have any issues to get products. It was very, very interesting to see that come full circle. It’s one thing to have this great idea to work with farmers and ranchers locally, but you also have to make sure that we can sustain each other, right? I’m like, this is what the business is; this is what I’ll need on a consistent basis. So making those connections is really cool too, because then they can help support your business and make sure that they have what you need.

SF: What does sustainability mean to you?

IJN: Resilience is one of the themes I’ve tried to weave in and out of the food program. When I apply the theme of resilience to our food, I’m looking at what farmers and ranchers are doing to protect the health of our soil. It’s a circular goal: good for you, good for the planet, good for the community. There’s a resilience in that food system.You have to work at it. What I talk about a lot here is how the way that we source the food or the way that we eat is the most sustainable action we can take every single day. You can have an impact on sustainability and on your community and on your planet every day by choosing the way you eat.

SF: Do you believe that food equals human health?

IJN: That’s a great question. I do believe that food is medicine. I do believe that people are forging more of an understanding and trying to stay more aware of what’s going on in their bodies. They are trying to exercise and form eating patterns that help them to promote optimal mental and physical health. Those two things I don’t see slowing down at all. We’re seeing there’s no shortage of heart health, brain health, adaptogens – all of these superfoods. I don’t see any of that going away. People are getting very creative about how to infuse health through their diet.

SF: What advice would you have for farmers and ranchers?

IJN: That’s a really good question. What I’m learning, especially recently, is that farmers and ranchers face the same labor battles as chefs, culinary people, and businesses in the hospitality industry. We are seeing this crazy shortage of labor. I’m dealing with the exact same staffing crisis up at a luxury property in the most expensive zip code in the world. There’s a skilled labor dilemma that needs to be addressed in the food world, period — whether you’re a farmer or rancher, or in hospitality.

Where Canyon Ranch Sources its Food

Here is a list of some of the sources for food products that Canyon Ranch Wellness Retreat of Woodside, California, buys locally.

  • Markegard Family Grass-Fed: beef, lamb, pork
  • Root Down Farm: duck, turkey, chicken
  • Real Good Fish: seasonal fish
  • Water2Table: seasonal fish
  • Blue House Farm: mixed seasonal produce and flowers; also squash, calendula, chard, strawberries
  • Fifth Crow Farms: mixed seasonal produce; also lettuces, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers
  • Harley Farms: goat cheese, honey, preserves
  • Ethic Ciders: hard cider
  • Thomas Fogarty: wine

SF Bio

Name: Isabelle Jackson Nunes

Title: Executive chef, Canyon Ranch Wellness Retreat

Location: Woodside, California

Website: canyonranch.com

Quoteworthy: “You know your doctor and dentist — you should know your farmer, too.”

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