Nirvana in the hills
A guest-chef weekend at Wilbur is steamed bliss
Serene hot springs, massage therapy, a fabulous natural setting and magnificent food: Those who journey to Wilbur Hot Springs for an overnight mini-vacation not only get in touch with their Zen, they eat well too.
My partner and I recently made the roughly two-hour journey to the hot springs, the entrance to which lies about 30 miles west of Willows on Highway 20. Having heard we were in for a “guest chef weekend,” we wondered what fantastic food artist might show up to grace Wilbur, where guests usually bring their own food and prepare meals in the huge, old-fashioned kitchen in the homey, well-appointed lodge.
Having a guest chef allowed us the pleasure of doing little besides bathing in the springs, hiking the greening hills, meditating, reading in the comfy library and chatting amiably with other guests. We all should treat ourselves to a “do-nothing” 24-hour period every now and then.
As we gathered in the cozy dining hall for pre-dinner wine on Saturday evening, we discovered the identity of our chef: Rachel Fann, from the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, where she has perfected her culinary skills over many years’ service. “I just like to have fun,” she shared with us as she briefly passed through the dining hall, chatting with guests. “That, for me, is the key.”
We willingly offered ourselves as the “testers” of Rachel’s fun. When the dinner bell rang, we lined up like jostling boarding-school adolescents for the buffet-style serving, eyeing the colorful, aromatic dishes spread out ahead of us on the long kitchen table.
Dinner included a hearty minestrone soup, roasted Tuscan chicken with currants and olives, roasted rosemary and garlic potatoes, a Caesar salad with Caesar-avocado dressing and toasted garlic croutons, and sourdough baguettes—all of these treats looking and tasting like fare found in a four-star natural-foods restaurant. The Tuscan chicken proved especially “Italian,” with liberal doses of rosemary and garlic.
For dessert, we devoured a caramelized pear tart, made with whole-grain flour and fresh pears.
A vegetarian option was available for those who desired a meat-free dinner.
The dining hall at Wilbur offers an atmosphere one can’t quite find in any Chico restaurant—or any restaurant anywhere, really. It’s a cross between summer camp and a really posh establishment. Some people come in from the hot springs in their robes and flip-flops, unabashedly sitting down to eat in such attire. People from a diversity of venues and backgrounds visit comfortably, and a thoroughly relaxed vibe prevails, with no Type-A servers whipping past making room for new customers. At the completion of each meal, every diner busses, washes, dries and puts away his own dishes. Seekers of spiritual renewal find a delightful peacefulness in mealtimes at Wilbur, although lively conversations can occur.
After bathing in the hot springs under starlight, then waking up the next morning for yet another round of hot water and reverie (most of the pools are “quiet” pools), we headed back to the dining hall for a triumph of human genius, a Sunday-morning brunch of near-divine grandeur.
We started with a vegan roasted-butternut, coconut, curry soup, which alone could make a true believer out of the most cynical eater. Next, we sampled the fresh-baked scones with currants, a pastry tinged with desire. Then we savored the baked potato and egg frittata with chives, cheeses and mushrooms, a festively and exuberantly postmodern creation. Finally, we nibbled on the effervescent finale of assorted gourmet cheeses, smoked salmon and fresh fruits, including papaya and mango.
People go to Wilbur to relax, renew, heal and experience nirvana; however, that meal embodied nirvana.
Guest-chef weekends at Wilbur might cure the most frazzled 21st-century soul. While rates are reasonable, those needing a cheaper option can head to the campsites and come up to the lodge at mealtimes, when the magic of the guest chef casts a happy spell over hungry bathers.