How Executive Chef Paul Hancock is establishing a farm-to-fork culinary oasis at Southern California’s Miramonte Indian Wells Resort & Spa
By Sara Perez Webber
Growing up on a small North Carolina island, Paul Hancock remembers exchanging fresh eggs with neighbors for goat cheese and milk, and standing on a chair next to his grandmother as she made collard greens and cornmeal dumplings.
While his culinary career has taken him from restaurants in the South to a chef’s apprenticeship in the French Alps to luxurious mega-yachts where he prepared meals for the rich and famous, Hancock has carried with him a love for high-quality, local ingredients. His devotion to the fresh and flavorful is on full display at Miramonte Indian Wells Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, Calif., near Palm Springs, where he’s served as executive chef since October 2016.
Hancock has elevated the resort’s farm-to-fork aesthetic, utilizing produce grown on property as well as ingredients from hand-selected purveyors on Miramonte’s menus, including at its signature restaurant, Citrus & Palm. He’s developed a partnership with Mosefund, a Mangalitsa pork farm in New Jersey, for example, and receives shipments of melons—which he describes as “some of the best on the planet”—from California’s Weiser Family Farms. Chef Hancock also works closely with nearby Sage Mountain Farm, which grows some produce specifically for the resort. “I’m able to have items on the menu that no one else can get because [owner Phil Noble] grows them specially for me,” says Hancock. “Say I want a specific size of baby butternut squash to cut in half for a vegetarian entrée; he’s able to grow them to a certain size and let me know when they’re ready.”
The culinary changes Hancock has helped bring to the resort—which started during Miramonte’s renovation last summer—has generated strong interest among groups, according to General Manager Matthew La Vine. “The resort is the only property in the Coachella Valley offering locally sourced culinary options and banquet dining to its guests,” he says.
Showcasing California’s bounty to Miramonte’s guests in a location that Hancock notes has “the most beautiful weather on the planet” lays the groundwork for memorable meals and events. “In this day and age, people want an experience,” notes Hancock. “We are able to deliver that experience and tell a story with different products, whether it’s an Oro Blanco grapefruit in January or an amazing honey tangerine in March.”
Catering Magazine recently interviewed Hancock to learn more about his approach to farm-to-fork hotel dining.
CM: How do you describe your culinary philosophy?
Hancock: To source or grow great ingredients, put them together with other great ingredients, in a way that marries the flavors, but also brings out the natural flavors, and execute it on a high level—that’s the fundamental premise. The food is always changing—beautiful green peas can be starchier in the beginning of season, for example, and sweeter in the latter. It’s understanding what we are doing and how we are doing it, and applying that for the guest.
CM: What is your background, and how did you become a chef?
Hancock: I never set out to be a chef. I always thought of myself as an entrepreneur; I took business classes and finance classes. One summer, I just wanted to buy a car, so I got a job as a busboy… I worked my way through college, always in kitchens. One time a chef said, “Why don’t you just give this a shot—it’s a career, it’s a business.” So I gave it a shot, did an apprentice program, and here I am.
I love everything about it—the chiming of the silverware, the clanging of the plates. Everybody has a story to tell, and I get to meet all these beautiful people.
CM: Citrus & Palm received a Shape Healthy Travel Award for its healthy food offerings. How do you create dishes and menus that are fresh and healthy as well as flavorful?
Hancock: Very simply; we start with the vegetable first and build around the vegetable. We are so lucky to be in Southern California. [For the menu’s popular stir-fried green beans], we take Blue Lake green beans that we blister, wok-style, in a pan sizzling hot, with very little oil. We use grapeseed oil because of its neutral flavor. Then we add pancetta from the Mangalitsa; we get it real crispy. Then we add a chile yuzu sauce, which we make from fermented chiles. We finish with some Thai basil, fresh mint, fried shallots and toasted peanuts. You can see easily this dish is from China, but our twist is we use different herbs. The Thai basil, it’s vivacious—and then we make our own chile yuzu sauce. We fuse flavors.
CM: What are some of the other popular items on the Citrus & Palm menu?
Hancock: We’ve got some great craft cocktails. We grow basil and marry it with rhubarb—the floral note from the basil, and the tangy, slightly citrusy taste of rhubarb pairs very well with vodka. So instead of a vodka cranberry, we have something that’s familiar, but change it up a bit and tantalize the taste buds. Our agua fresca everyone raves over. In season, we’ll do watermelon; right now we are getting pineapple.
CM: Could you give some examples of how you incorporate produce from your on-site garden into your menus?
Hancock: We have beautiful grapefruit trees, orange trees, lemon trees, kumquat trees—a plethora of citrus trees. We already had some raised beds for herbs, so we took that and built on it. Sometimes we plant heirloom tomatoes; we were using them for a specific burrata dish. We grow our own cilantro and put it in red and green salsa; we grow rosemary for a lemon-rosemary marinade on our chicken breast. We grow a lot of mint, and use basil in drinks, tomato sauces, pizzas and flatbreads. Right now I’ve got radishes growing. We don’t have an acre of land, but for nightly or daily specials, there are little fun things we can do. When everyone sees me walking in the restaurant with a big basket of herbs and tomatoes, they become very inquisitive.
CM: How has your experience as a former catering company owner influenced your approach to catering special events at Miramonte?
Hancock: I know from my own catering company that everyone wants a different experience, so you need to give them some options. I spent some time as a chef on mega super yachts, where anything can happen if they’re willing to pay the bill. You can be in the middle of Alaska and want a pineapple from Costa Rica. It can happen; it’s just going to take a while to get there. So in writing menus and focusing on catered events, we want to be as flexible and offer as much variety as possible. I love to cook in front of people; we do a lot of items on a charcoal grill and do a lot of al fresco dining.
For catering, we like to offer exciting stations and variety. [We had clients who] were looking for something different, and they were Italian. I said, “Instead of doing a sushi action station, let’s do a mozzarella action station.” So we had smoked mozzarella with sundried tomato and basil oil and lavash crackers. And ciliegine mozzarella—I like to pair those with tomato, fresh basil, extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt, like a classic Caprese. We had a huge ice sculpture, and bowls placed inside of the ice. We tossed it in metal mixing bowls, garnished it, and put it on different breads and crackers with balsamic. The guests completely emptied the station. It was very interactive. We were able to use different mozzarellas, and each one had a different taste and texture.
Sometimes we do hydroponically grown salad towers and have a living salad station. We ask, “What lettuce would you like?”, and we snip it right out of the tower.
CM: How do you plan to continue to evolve the food-and-beverage offerings at Miramonte?
Hancock: We’re not going to make any fundamental change. We’re going to stay who we are, but we are going to focus on growing more at the hotel. I’m looking into different possibilities, some type of rooftop garden. I don’t want to take space away from the guest. You’re in touch with nature here, just as soon as you walk out of your room. It’s an intimate feeling; hummingbirds are flying by your head, you’re not stuck in an elevator for 20 minutes. We’re always looking at ways where we can enhance the guest experience.