Resort life has its perks, but you aren’t guaranteed to get what you pay for when you’re vegan. Yes, the views from your hotel room balcony are stunning, and there’s no beating that breathtaking moment when you walk into the gorgeous lobby for the first time, but when it comes to dining, vegans are often forgotten. The five-star service of a destination resort is compromised by the extremely limited and lackluster plant-based options. At many resorts, vegans survive on fruit, sad salads, roasted vegetables (hold the butter), and maybe some fries paired with a processed vegan meat patty (hold the aioli and brioche bun). All that being said, the bar for plant-based resort options is embarrassingly low, but the Four Seasons, Punta Mita isn’t settling. Since bringing on vegan chef Leslie Durso to oversee its allergen-friendly and plant-based menus, the hotel has offered over 250 vegan dishes across its on-property restaurants. We sat down with Durso to learn more about her origins as a chef and her process in developing all of the mouthwatering vegan recipes worthy of a five-star resort.
From Bill Nye to Punta Mita
Durso’s career path is the reverse of many who move to Los Angeles. Most start off in restaurants while pursuing larger acting opportunities; Durso, however, had “made it,” at least in the eyes of elementary and middle school students. Durso was cast on the educational science show Bill Nye the Science Guy as Leslie the Lab Girl. The show eventually ran its final season, and instead of chasing down another role, she pushed up her sleeves and tightened her apron strings.
“Bill Nye sparked my passion for educating through entertainment,” Durso recalls. “After that show came to an end, I decided to become a chef and to inspire people to make healthier eating choices. There was no vegan culinary school at the time so I traveled the world taking classes and learning from anyone who would teach me. I did and still believe continuing your education and keeping your curiosity is the way to master anything.”
At the time she decided to pivot to a culinary career, Durso had over a decade of plant-based eating under her belt. She stopped eating meat at the age of eight. “Call it instinct, call it an inner voice, call it whatever you like, I just knew that as a child I didn’t want to eat meat,” Durso says. It was tough making that decision as a member of a large Italian-American household, but her family eventually came around. She was still welcomed into the kitchen where her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother shaped the way she cooks today.
“It sounds cliche, but love is the greatest ingredient you can put in your food. The joy in the process is everything,” Durso says.
That joy for cooking bolstered by an ever-curious mind opened doors for Durso. She adopted a “say yes” mentality and took any opportunity she could to practice her craft. After a few years of private cheffing, she started looking for something on a larger scale. Five years ago, that opportunity presented itself at the Four Seasons.
“When I first came to the Four Seasons Resort, Punta Mita, I fell in love,” Durso reminisced. “The service at the Four Seasons Resort, Punta Mita is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Each staff member makes you feel like you are coming home. Every detail is thought of and every need is met. In addition, the energy in Punta Mita is so vibrant and strong. I really feel connected to nature there! The beaches are dramatic and the sunsets are unparalleled.”
This was her chance to educate a global audience about the benefits of plant-based cuisine, and she ran with it.
Vegan at the Four Seasons, Punta Mita
“Since coming onboard, we have built the most plant-based and allergy-friendly 5-star resort in the world!” Durso exclaims. When she came on board, the goal was to implement at least three vegan options at each restaurant on property. Now with over 250 vegan items, Durso has far exceeded that goal. In addition to being animal-free, many of Durso’s dishes are allergen-friendly. She’s worked extensively with F.A.R.E (Food Allergy and Research Education), and she knows how to invent alluring dishes free from the top nine food allergens. At the resort, she says the most common modification request is gluten-free, which is why many of the plant-based options are also free of gluten.
The Four Seasons Punta Mita
While Mexican cuisine is a given, the resort also offers culinary styles that span the globe. After all, they are catering to an international clientele. Durso has created menus for the Four Seasons, Punta Mita’s Mediterranean, Asian, and cocktail concepts with dishes such as Shiitake and Tofu Goyza, Roasted Watermelon vegan sushi rolls, and Mushroom Empanadas.
Given the dizzying array of options, we asked Durso what her perfect day of eating entailed.
“Oh this is a hard one!” Durso saysafter a pause. “I like to start my day with a Jugo Verde (made with pineapple, spinach, cucumber, celery, parsley, cactus, and lime) and a bowl of Bircher Muesli or if I am feeling indulgent, our vegan chilaquiles! For lunch, I would go to Tamai for a Zen Chopped Salad and Wild Mushroom Empanadas. In the afternoon, I always recommend taking our tequila tasting class. It’s so interesting and really made me fall in love with the nuances of tequila! Dinner depends on your mood. For Asian, I would go to Aramara for Crispy Cauliflower Bites, Roasted Watermelon Sushi, Wok Fried Miso Eggplant, and Red Curry. If I were in the mood for Mexican, I would go to Dos Catrinas for a Salsa Tasting with Baked Tlayuda (a local-style chip), Corn Ribs in a Mexican BBQ Sauce, Mushroom Tinga Tacos, and Chile Relleno. For Mediterranean on the beach, head to Bahia for Mezze, Homemade Pastas, and Nogada Spiced Roasted Cauliflower.”
But what about dessert? Even at vegan-friendly omnivore restaurants, dessert is often an afterthought. Ninety percent of the time, the vegan option will be fresh fruit or fruit sorbet. These choices are fine on a weekday at home, but when your dining companion is swooning with delight over a decadent cheesecake or divine crème brûlée, you want to experience that, too. At the Four Seasons, Punta Mita, dessert is as important as the meal.
“Each restaurant has vegan desserts,” Durso assures. “For something special, I give you two options: walk down to our Churro Cart to get made-to-order churros and bring them to eat on the beach and enjoy them while watching the sunset. [Alternatively, go] back to your room to indulge in our decadent Chocolate Bar. [It’s made with] thin layers of gluten-free chocolate cake layered with chocolate avocado ganache, topped with raspberry reduction and fresh berries.”
Those desserts in themselves are enough to compel us to book a flight. Beyond this impressive smorgasbord of vegan options, there is plenty to do here.
“Between the three pools, two beaches, an award-winning spa, two Jack Nicklaus-designed golf courses, 14 tennis courts, kayaking, whale watching, meditation, yoga, wellness treatments, tequila classes, local Huichol workshops, one of the best kid programs in the world, and so much more, there is literally something for everyone!” Durso confirms.
She’s also established a Meatless Monday routine for the entire Four Seasons, Punta Mita kitchen staff. Durso plans to take on more restaurant projects in the future to ensure plant-based options aren’t a one-off, but the norm.