Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., has long been a mainstay of everything related to wellness, and cuisine is no exception. Individuals and groups staying at the renowned resort look forward to nourishing their bodies and minds with the abundance and variety of flavors nature—and the creative culinary team—have to offer. 

Enter Ashley Reese, who joined Canyon Ranch, Tucson, as executive chef last fall, bringing her signature sense of nutritious culinary mastery to the table. Reese is a graduate of Johnson & Wales University and most recently served as executive sous chef at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort in Tucson.

We checked in with Reese for her take on great strategies to infuse culinary wellness into agendas, particularly based on current trends. 

What is your culinary philosophy, and how does nutritious cuisine play into it?

My culinary philosophy is about authenticity and integrity in all things. I believe in truly standing by the term farm to table—sourcing from local farmers, finding the best products closest to home, and keeping them as pure as possible while cooking. Since joining Canyon Ranch, focusing on finding sustainable, organic product without preservatives and being able to read and recognize every ingredient has deepened my love for the connection between nutrition and the culinary world.

Why is healthy, nutritious cuisine such an important part of a group agenda?

I think it’s vital to tie nutritious cuisine into group agendas for multiple reasons. By focusing on fueling your body with what it needs and presenting it well, you can show people that they can have wonderful food, which not only satisfies them, but also makes them feel amazing. Sometimes we describe it as “drinking the Kool-Aid” because once they notice that immediate difference, they don’t want to go back to eating badly. In our busy and stressful lives, if the way we eat can affect our energy and focus, and aid in having a positive, healthy mind, then there really is no better way than ensuring we provide this kind of experience for our guests and groups in-house. 

What are some of the biggest new (or ongoing) trends you are seeing in healthy cuisine this year? 

I think one of the most important things with trends for me and what I’m focusing on is that each individual is different and requires different needs based on their own makeup. It’s about creating a menu that can appeal to all and allow guests to customize their dish based on that principal to ensure all dietary needs can be met with as much ease as possible. If I were to list one area in particular that is a focus for me currently it is gut health and probiotics, and acknowledging the importance of having a healthy gut for a healthier life. Kombucha, fermenting, pickling and vegetable-forward thinking will all be incorporated into our next menu concept.

What are some of the most interesting ways your culinary program at Canyon Ranch is reflecting healthy trends and blazing new trails? 

We are constantly evolving the culinary program at Canyon Ranch, thinking of ways to reflect trends and engage our guests as well as educating our teams. When we change menus or add items, it often stems conversations/learning opportunities with both internal and external guests, where we tie in the informational piece to the product and dish it represents. We have many different dining options for our groups and individual guests, whether it’s a special menu created in our private dining room or joining our chefs in the demo kitchen to see how a recipe is made with the opportunity to ask questions. Most recently this year, we’re tying in our vendors to offer an educational aspect going more in-depth about the source of the products we use and the sustainability process. For instance, we proudly stand by our farmed salmon product from a company called Verlasso, and we are offering guests the ability to learn all about the product and how it’s sustainably raised, taste dishes focusing on the product and ask questions. As another interactive educational piece, we will have our small aquaponics vendor coming out for guests to talk about their products, taste them and see the difference. 

What advice would you give meeting planners working with chefs to incorporate healthy, nutritious food into events? 

I recommend focusing on the best foods for productivity, such as not being heavy in breads (heavy gluten items make people feel sluggish), and highlighting healthy fats, good grains, protein and fresh colorful fruits and vegetables is key. Also important is an interactive piece for guests, such as giving a teambuilding program and keeping them engaged and excited about a more nutritious experience. Tapas-style meals are a good idea as well. Several small bites allow you to try more things, keeping teams excited about what they’re having and able to taste.