Three chefs explain the challenges and rewards
The decision to move into a continuing care retirement community or an assisted living program is complex. There is much to ponder. Am I ready to "give up my independence?" Can I afford this program? Would another location be better for my family? Will I like my new neighbors? Is the care in this community what I need?
Fortunately, there is one aspect of a residential program that one needn't question. The food will be healthy and delicious. After visiting three residential programs, in three communities, I conclude that the only problem with the food is that residents are likely to gain weight. Willpower is needed.
The chefs who cook in senior communities like their work. They seem to thrive on the particular challenges of planning and cooking for their guests. "Serving the same people day after day is different from restaurant work," says Keith Fornier, executive chef at RiverMead, located in Peterborough. "You can't expect people to face the same menu every day."
RiverMead is a life care community, with 155 residents in independent cottages and apartments, 55 assisted living and special care apartments and 20 residents who receive skilled nursing care. "In this community," says Bonnie Cohen, executive director, "a resident's transition to another level of care is seamless, with emphasis on independence to the degree possible for that resident."
Chef Fornier came to RiverMead from a background in restaurant and country club cooking. He was attracted, initially, by the regular hours and good benefits that restaurant cooking seldom offers. Now he is committed to working with elders. "I can be creative here," he says. "My menus range from comfort food to ethnic dishes." There is always at least one low fat/low sodium entrée on the dinner menu. Lunch is a salad/soup buffet, with other choices on request. Many residents prepare their own breakfasts, but a coffee bar, with hot drinks and muffins or other pastries, is available to both staff and residents. Some residents also choose to prepare their own lunches.
Food service for so many people is no small task. In addition to the main dining room, which typically serves 110 people in the evening, there are four dining rooms in the assisted living and special care unit. Basket service is provided to a resident who might be "under the weather" or just wants to stay in for the evening. Special events are held throughout the year.
The dining service is a contract service. Fornier and three other senior food service staff are employees of Morrison Senior Dining. There is no question, however, that Fornier is a part of the RiverMead community. He meets regularly with a staff/resident food committee. He circulates in the dining room, stopping at each table for a brief visit. He knows his diners.
Chef David Soha is executive chef at Carlyle Place in Bedford. Carlyle Place is an assisted living community with 40 residents. The dining schedule includes three meals a day, with the larger meal served at noon. "Since many residents retire early in the evening," Soha says, "it's best to have a lighter meal at the end of the day." Each noon time meal includes two choices of entrée but individual requests can be accommodated.
Soha also comes from a background in restaurant cooking, but prefers the work he is doing now. "I have to be creative," he says, "and I find that enjoyable." He does not use standard recipes. Each of the three chefs might use a different recipe for meat loaf, for example.
A chart on the kitchen wall lists each resident, with any food preference, diet restrictions or food allergies. "We know our residents by name," says Soha. "We come to know a little about their lives as well. I am in the dining room almost every day to visit." Occasionally, a resident will complain about the food. The complaint is taken seriously. But Soha has found that often the real complaint has nothing to do with food. "Perhaps that resident is a little down in spirit," he says, "and it's easier to complain about the meal than to say 'my son cancelled his visit again.'"
Shopping is done locally, with a few exceptions. Staples such as flour and sugar are purchased in bulk. Rising grocery prices are a concern but Soha knows the residents well enough to serve just the right amount. There is very little waste. "We are using less expensive cuts of meat," he explains. "They take longer to cook but are actually more flavorful." Chef Fornier, with a much larger program, does much of his shopping online, with delivery provided. He also shops locally for seasonal fresh produce and seafood.
Chef David Moran opted for employment in a senior living community five years ago. He works for The Woodward, as assisted living program in Keene. This small facility currently serves twenty-three residents. Residents take all their meals in a sunny, attractive dining room. Chef Moran circulates among them, visiting and making sure that they are satisfied with the meals.
"We do have residents with special dietary needs," he says, "but that is not a problem. It just makes my job all the more interesting." There are residents who are diabetic and some with allergies. One requested a vegan diet, and eats no animal products.
The Woodward is a not-for-profit facility located just a few blocks from "downtown," which makes it possible for residents to take part in downtown events. The Woodward has a sizeable garden plot in the back yard. Some residents grow pumpkins, which they enter in the annual pumpkin festival. Chef Moran grows herbs for use in cooking. Board members help residents tend the gardens that produce flowers and vegetables for use at the residence. Most shopping is done locally; a few commodities are purchased from a grocery supply company that specializes in food for senior communities.
What about alcohol in a residential community? Carlyle Place provides a daily cocktail hour, with hors d'ouvres. At RiverMead, residents may bring their own wine to the dinner table. A BYOB party is held every two weeks. The Woodward provides a wine and cheese tasting every two weeks. Chef Moran likes to introduce residents to new varieties of cheese, or perhaps to try an unusual wine.
All agree that food service in a senior community is demanding, but rewarding, work. All work with interns and enjoy mentoring chefs-to-be. The big challenge is to keep the menus interesting, day after day. Our residents look forward to dinner, they say, and that is what matters most. NH
This article appears in the June 2009 issue of New Hampshire Magazine