When I began my career as a chef, I never imagined I would eventually fill the position of Culinary Services Director at two senior living communities in Santa Rosa. Over the years, I worked alongside renowned chefs Wolfgang Puck and Nancy Oakes; cooked for political dignitaries in Washington, D.C. at the Morrison-Clark Historic Inn & Restaurant; worked as a sous chef at the legendary Chez Nous in San Francisco; and then, became an executive chef first at Belden Taverna before taking a position at the historic Presidio Golf Club, also in San Francisco.
It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I took a leap of faith from the restaurant world of fine dining to find a new happy home in luxury retirement living. So, here I am: Culinary Services Director for Varenna and Fountaingrove Lodge, which are two Oakmont Senior Living communities in Santa Rosa. What changed? One reason: I came to realize that these facilities are of the same caliber as the fine establishments on my résumé. From the living accommodations to the lush grounds, and from the concierge services to the indoor and outdoor dining spaces, Oakmont Senior Living has created an opulent world where the culinary journey is just one aspect of the experience.
But like many people, I realize that words like “gourmet,” “delectable” and “tantalizing” are not traditionally associated with the meal options offered at senior living facilities. By and large, senior facilities have gravely underserved their guests when it comes to food quality. That’s why, from day one, I was excited to be a part of Oakmont Senior Living’s quest to change that. That was two years ago; since then, we have assembled a team of highly skilled restaurant chefs who have pioneered a new age of gourmet dining in the senior world.
It started with eliminating terms like “meal options,” and replacing them with menus. Yes, “real” menus that offer residents an evolving collection of five-star dishes that reflect different culinary styles from around the world. Starting with my repertoire of French and Mediterranean-inspired dishes, our menus include such delicacies as banana bread french toast for breakfast; orange-ginger poached wild salmon with a salad of baby kale, blueberries, quinoa, toasted coconut and greek yogurt for lunch; and beef wellington with lobster bordelaise and white truffle essence for dinner. From our winemaker dinners to our outdoor barbeques and Sunday brunches, our residents get nothing but the best.
One of the exciting challenges of working in a senior community has been balancing taste, nutrition and the expectations of a strictly meat-and-potatoes generation. It wasn’t enough to influence residents to change their traditional views of what constitutes a satisfying meal by introducing healthier options; I had to change the way I approached food.
Coming from a restaurant environment where there was no need to consider fat or salt content, it was the first time I had to fuse culinary wants with dietary needs, and still make each meal tasty and satisfying. With a little experimentation, we found many ways to incorporate fresh, local produce, lean meats and super foods like kale, blueberries, almonds and wild salmon, while also cutting back on heavy creams and fatty carbohydrates. Portion control and heart-healthy dishes are a standard on our menus. Each day, we try to expand our residents’ palettes with the highly nutritious foods they need to enjoy a more vibrant lifestyle – and to their surprise they always find it delicious. Today, it’s not uncommon to see a resident try brown rice, lentils or tofu for the first time and truly enjoy it.
My work with Oakmont has also afforded me the opportunity to learn from our residents who often share their cherished family recipes with me. It’s the highlight of my day to prepare these delightful old world recipes that have been passed down through generations. I love watching how enchanted people are when I present them with the finished dish they loved for years, and hearing them tell me how surprised they are that it tastes “just the way I remembered.”
Cooking for our residents has not only changed the way I think about food; it has changed the way I live life. Today, I am passionate about creating power foods that make our residents feel great and energized – a philosophy that I have also taken home with me. After my years in the highly competitive world of high-end restaurants, it is a blessing to find new meaning and the opportunity to redefine dining in the retirement living industry. I’m reminded each day that the leap of faith I took was well worth it. It’s the best decision I ever made.