Chef Giovanni Arias wins The 2013 Healthy Chef Award in our Trailblazing Chef Awards.

By Tim Cebula
October 18, 2013
Photo: Scott Wiseman

More chefs, coast to coast, are becoming health conscious. We see it on menus that feature more and better produce, more seafood, more whole grains, and saner portion sizes. It's not universal, but it is trending.

For menus with top-to-bottom healthy food, though, the kind served in judicious portions with nutritional stats proudly attached, spa restaurants still corner the market. Yet "spa food" often creates a justified sense of dread—a promise of stingy plates, high prices, and dated cooking. Certainly we've tasted our share of that bad stuff over the years.

Smart spas are turning to innovative chefs to shake things up. Case in point: Giovanni Arias at Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach. Since taking over as executive chef in 2011, Arias has put a "Floribbean" inflection on the Canyon Ranch Grill menu—including tricks he picked up from years working under legendary South Florida chefs Robin Haas and Allen Susser. He also draws ideas from his native Puerto Rico. Arias cleverly pulls from the global pantry to create intrinsically healthful dishes with big, punchy flavors that more than compensate for the limits on calories, fat, and sodium. His Scallops with Saffron Sauce is accented by citrus and creamy mashed cauliflower: loaded with taste but weighing in at a mere 340 calories.

And he knows as well as anyone how indispensable acid and spicy heat are in the healthy cook's kitchen. Appetizers like his Peruvian-inspired tiradito—a form of seviche—pair lean, ultrawhite fish with tangy-sweet citrus and crunchy blue corn chips, while Szechuan-spiced seared tuna is splashed with peppery ginger-sesame vinaigrette.

Signature dishes like avocado tartare with a tangy-sweet mango-sesame dressing and oven-roasted artichoke fries with organic, fat-free sour cream--based ranch dressing have drawn raves, in part because they seem indulgent while staying under 100 calories per serving. "They're better than French fries—packed with flavor," Arias says. And his Black Pearl Organic Salmon smartly uses thin, crunchy wisps of carrot and radish and wasabi "roe" that pops in your mouth to add textural excitement to a low-cal entrée.

Nutrition info, calculated by Canyon Ranch's corporate food-development team, accompanies each menu item. Entrées tend to fall in the 350- to 400-calorie range, with the exception of the optional 8-ounce grass-fed steak offerings, lean cuts that still hit a relatively reasonable 660 calories. In addition to feeding spa guests, Canyon Ranch Grill is open to the public and attracts plenty of customers hunting for tasty fine dining they can feel good about.