FE&S: How is being a chef for a senior living facility different than other types of chef positions?
FB: Senior living facilities have different styles of feeding, so you have to be mindful of the different needs of your customers and work closely with your team. We have about 15 cooks on staff managing 6 satellite kitchens that range from assisted living to medical units to Alzheimer units averaging about 360 customers total. We offer a buffet lunch, and in our main dining room we usually feed about 60 to 90 people for lunch and dinner. We also serve breakfast, lunch and dinner in our cafe.
FE&S: How do you balance the different outlets?
FB: One of my goals with Cura has been to develop a really solid menu that rotates every five weeks each season. We cook everything from scratch, including a minimum of four fresh entrees every day. The medical unit might get two of those entrees, or we will make something else for them. They might not care for baked catfish, so we might offer a cold seafood salad with crab and shrimp.
We're able to respond to what our residents want, and this comes from a history of listening to them. We meet up with them in the different areas monthly and accumulate all the information and try to adjust the menu on the fly if we need to.
FE&S: How do you accommodate special dietary requests?
FB: We know the history of our residents and their preferences — some people prefer poultry to seafood or beef or pork. We will also create specialized, individualized menus by chopping, grinding or pureeing meals for residents with special needs. I work very closely with our dietitian to meet other special diets, such as gluten-free or diabetic.
FE&S: How have you designed your kitchen to respond to these different needs?
FB: In the case of gluten-free diets, we don't have many celiac residents, but there are some who have issues with gluten, so we have adjusted our recipes and will stagger production in the kitchen to make sure there is no cross-contamination. For example, with our marsala sauce, we've eliminated the use of flour and instead just make the sauce with wine, drippings and a little corn starch if need be.
FE&S: Describe the kitchen setup.
FB: We have one main kitchen and then country kitchens in the medical units.
In the old days, we made everything in the main kitchen, but now there is much more fresh cooking happening in the country kitchens. We've brought in coffee and juice makers, ice cream makers, toasters and smaller equipment to make everything fresh at the various sites.
We also do more cooking out in front of the residents. We have cooking demonstrations on Tuesdays. Yesterday, for instance, we had a fajita station with a choice of chicken or steak made fresh in front of the residents. We try to constantly communicate with our residents. Most of them know our staff by name.
FE&S: How does equipment help you deliver your from-scratch menus?
FB: In the main kitchen, we recently installed some new combi ovens, which we use to cook many different things, including smoking fresh salmon that we will then carve on a board for our residents out front. We also put in two larger soup kettles so the cooks don't struggle as much with smaller batches and they can focus on other cooking.
When people see the size of our kitchen they are amazed at the amount of product we produce and how organized we are. Everyone knows exactly what they need to do and at what time. We run our kitchen based on daily production sheets, which instructs every individual as to what their duties are for that day so there is no guesswork.
FE&S: You've even set up your own on-site farmers market. How did that come together?
FB: We started with a smaller market, working with our produce company to bring in local fruit and vegetables. Now the market has expanded to also include homemade items we make, like jams using locally grown rhubarb and figs, and apple pies.
We will also set up an action station and take local vegetables and show residents how to cook them. Once, we made a puff pastry filled with local cherries and goat cheese and used a waffle iron to bake it right in front of them. We have also carved out baby pumpkins and will serve soup in them. I have also made homemade sauerkraut and fermented cider. The independent residents like these little keepsake things they can take home and use for the holidays.
The market also sparks conversation about how to cook different things, and it allows us to offer different types of foods other than just daily meals. Purchasing food from a farmers market is one thing, but understanding how to menu seasonal food provides our independent residents with fresh ideas on how to create simple, easy to replicate dishes in their homes.
FE&S: How do you package up some of these goodies?
FB: For the sauerkraut I have bought mason jars and made my own labels. I use steamers for the canned and fermented items so they can sit on the shelf for a while, and I will include instructions for the residents on how to use the product, and to bring it back if the rubber seal on the container is broken. This year I'm going to try to make homemade cheese with local milk and our own yogurt culture. We're always trying something new.
FE&S: What procedures do you follow when working with fermented foods?
FB: We follow strict health department protocol for our fermented foods, but I don't send those to the medical units — these products are available only for our independent residents.
FE&S: What's on the menu at the moment?
FB: We're exploring authentic African cuisine, including some traditional African soups. I made a lamb curry and chicken marinated in coconut milk. Tilapia is a prominent fish in our area, so I baked that with local vegetable compote and for dessert made a tahini coconut rice pudding with warm coconut sauce. The appetizer is fried green bananas with a honey peanut butter sauce, and I made a warm mango-pineapple chutney to go with ice cream. There's never a dull day in our kitchen!