Merrill Shindler / April 2005
Food Arts presents the April 2005 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Michel Stroot, a Belgian born, classically trained master of the French kitchen who has managed the seemingly impossible, turning spa cuisine into haute cuisine.
For three decades as executive chef of the opulent Golden Door spa in Escondido, California, a virtual Lourdes for the rich, the famous, and the well pampered of Hollywood, Stroot has massaged the palates of the glitterati with low-cal asparagus guacamole, coleslaw fashioned from Ruby Red grapefruit, and a tartare of beets rather than beef--all of which follow the first words in his second cookbook, The Golden Door Cooks Light & Easy: "Eating should be a happy experience. A nurturing experience."
Stroot's love of food began early, in his home near Brussels, where he remembers his mother whisking creamy pancake batter, and as she poured it onto the hot griddle, they sizzled and filled the air with the aroma of butter and vanilla. "My mother let me stand at the stove and flip them." His Proustian memories continue through "tart spring rhubarb" and "succulent summer strawberries" to treats given him by British soldiers stationed near his village at the end of World War II, including wondrous chocolate and a strange fruit he had never seen or tasted before. It was called…an orange.
When he took trips into Brussels with his mother, he would stand in the doorways of restaurant kitchens, fascinated by the sight of chefs creating the meat, butter, and cream heavy dishes of Belgium. Food became his avocation, then his vocation, when he enrolled at the newly opened Centre d'Enseignements et de Recherches des Industries Alimentaires in Brussels, where he learned the cooking of "the classical French school." This style evolved as he traveled to kitchens in London, Toronto, Vancouver, and California. And then, in 1973, he was invited to cook at the Golden Door. After years of cooking food laden with animal fats, he found it a difficult transition. But he also found that "this was the perfect place to showcase California's bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables." The result was a cuisine built around two concepts—fresh and light.
Simplicity may be its guiding force, coupled with a certain pleasurable minimalism, as in Stroot's advice to "put a small square of cheesecloth secured with a rubber band on the top of your olive oil bottle. You'll use a teaspoon instead of a tablespoon." In other words, indulge…but indulge with moderation. In his quest for a way to make spa cuisine palatable, Stroot has created a nouvelle version, a culinary model that's become one of the primary secrets to good living found behind the Golden Door.
And having created this paradigm, he's moving on. "I'll be leaving the Golden Door this summer," says Stroot. "I have many offers—to work with the Holland-America line on a healthy menu, to teach, to be a guest chef. And I have some ideas about modifying my cuisine. I'll always cook light. But then, I am Belgian--so it may not be as light as it's been."