Chefs You Should Know

Chef Eric Theiss on Coachella Valley’s Food Scene and Eating Local at Indian Wells

For Chef Eric Theiss, executive chef at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa, cooking has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember. He recalls growing up outside of Philadelphia, when he would act as a mini sous chef, assisting his grandmother as she prepared their family’s large, food-filled holiday gatherings.

Years later, he’s still gathering the masses together around food, except now those folks are vacationers to Southern California’s Coachella Valley.

Marriott TRAVELER caught up with Chef Eric Theiss to discover more about his culinary journey, get insider tips about the Coachella Valley and find out about a couple of his go-to dishes at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa.

How does a Philly native end up in Indian Wells?

Born in Philly, I went to school in Rhode Island at Johnson and Wales. After school I got picked up by Marriott, working at their hotels around America until my first executive chef job at the Park Ridge Marriott in New Jersey in 2007.

And I’ve been an executive chef with Marriott ever since. While I had previously worked in the Coachella Valley for Marriott, I came back out seven years ago to the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa, a hotel I had always wanted to be an executive chef at.

What factors influenced your culinary journey along the way?

My upbringing. I grew up in a rural part of Pennsylvania in a house that was actually built in 1714 and that was a gathering place during the holidays.

My grandmother was a phenomenal cook. And I can remember standing on a chair with her at the stove, making giblet gravy from scratch, and I was the assistant. So I was the sous chef back then. I continued to progress, so much so that I’d return from high school and college to take over the holiday dinners.

indian wells
(Photo: Jaime Kowal)

Southern California is such a culinary melting pot. How does the Coachella Valley’s food scene complement that?

We have everything that L.A., San Diego and the O.C. has, from poké bars to gastropubs to family-owned restaurants to high-end steakhouses. But the experience of the Coachella Valley and its “super resorts” isn’t something that you can have in L.A., for example.

Therefore, we have to have the food to match that experience. Interestingly enough, the trendiest, highest-quality food is often in the Coachella Valley’s resorts. Part of the experience out here is hotel-hopping to try the different food at each resort.

Locally sourced food is a big part of California cuisine. How are you able to integrate that into your menus at the resort?

About 80 percent of everything we buy comes from California. For example, I use Carlsbad Aquafarm for my mussels and oysters. Often while road biking I’ll come across local farms that we use in our restaurants, such as County Line Harvest, an organic farm with two California locations, where I get all my herbs and salad ingredients.

People don’t realize that produce and agriculture is a half-billion dollar industry in the Coachella Valley, making up one of California’s largest crop-growing regions.

What are some of the different restaurant concepts at the Renaissance Indian Wells?

indian wells
(Photo: Jaime Kowal)

Our latest refresh at the hotel is SPC, Sirocco Pizza Company. It used to be a high-end, fine-dining restaurant, but since we’re a family resort, we changed the concept to be a more family-friendly Italian restaurant. What hasn’t changed, however, is making everything from scratch, including the pizza dough, sauces, pasta and gelato.

Elsewhere is our sushi bar, Glo Sushi, headlined by our three classically trained Japanese chefs. What’s unique about it is that we buy the fish whole, saving and using the entire fish.

CAVA is our California-fresh restaurant and what we refer to as our three-meal restaurant [breakfast, lunch and dinner], though it’s most popular during breakfast for the breakfast buffet.

Any must-order items at the Renaissance Indian Wells?

Some must-try dishes at the hotel include the garlic knots at SPC and any number of different types of sushi at Glo.

Come summer, however, people go crazy for our lemon ricotta pancakes for breakfast, in which I use fresh lemons that actually come from my yard.

indian wells
(Photo: Jaime Kowal)

Where are your favorite places to dine when you’re not at your restaurants?

My go-to is El Mexicali Café, which has been in Indio for more than 30 years. They have this one item, Chile Gueritos Rellenos de Camaron, which are yellow peppers stuffed with shrimp and cheese and topped off with soy sauce, believe it or not. As they put it, it’s unexplainable, like nothing you’ve ever had.

Another place is TKB, which stands for The Kids Business. It’s an Indio sandwich shop that’s one of the top-rated Yelp restaurants nationally. Their sandwiches are phenomenal. And they’re right on the exit for Coachella, so during festival season they can do upwards of several thousand sandwiches per day.

They roast their own meats, make their own sauces and bake their own bread, so you can’t have a bad sandwich there.

What’s something that people traveling to the Coachella Valley for the first time may be surprised to find?

The landscape and vistas. It’s not just anywhere that you get those 360-degree views of sprawling mountaintops, some of which stand over 10,000 feet tall.

Any insider tips on must-see places for visitors to the region?

Hiking. My favorite hike with my family is in the Mecca Hills, the Painted Canyon/Ladder Canyon hike on the east side of the Coachella Valley. It’s a slot canyon where you can’t even see the sun in some areas because you’re enveloped by canyon walls.

Ladders have been placed throughout the canyon so you can access the different levels of it and reach the top. When you get to the top, you have views of the Salton Sea, Palm Springs and beyond. It’s my favorite hike in the desert.