Few adult decisions are more heart-wrenching than those relating to the care of an elderly parent. After five years of caring for my 85-year-old Mom at home, we reached a point where her dementia quickly went from mild to moderate. It became impossible for us to give her the quality care she needed with our jobs and busy lives to live. After 18 months of painstaking search and research of many places and alternative options that didn't quite feel right, heaven opened and dropped The Residences, a brand new assisted living facility, ten minutes from my home. I found it impeccable, staffed with professionals of the highest quality, reasonably priced for the quality of care, and run by a fierce advocate of a senior citizen's right to dignity and a voice. Maria Torre, the Executive Director, is meticulous in her attention to detail and formidable in the straight-forward execution of her vision for senior living. And if all this wasn't enough, what I found in the kitchen of this stylish facility was game-changing.
The power team in charge of this revolution consists of Executive Chef David Melendez, Assistant Chef Danny Wells, and Food Service Director, Chef Maria Torres (no, it's not a typo. Her name is almost the same as the Executive Director's). Torres is a warrior who leads this operation with a passionate commitment to radicalizing the institutional kitchen, shattering all cliches, and setting a new standard.
Collectively, this well-rounded team brings over twenty years of experience in diverse areas such as food service and dietary management, wine distribution, and catering, as well as degrees in hospitality, oriental medicine and of course, culinary arts.
For months I sat with my mother observing the dynamic of the facility's dining room, which is more like a restaurant with a daily menu from which residents can make choices on three courses during three mealtimes. I also attended a Mother's Day brunch that garnered admiration from residents, families, and executives from United Healthcare. I walked down the buffet line and couldn't help thinking of many brunch restaurants that charge a hefty price for quality not as high as what I saw at this event. Poached salmon and a perfectly pink prime rib, eggs Benedict on herb ciabatta with avocado, mini muffin frittatas, pain au chocolat,Tiramisu, and fruit tarts with homemade cream are just a sampling of the exquisite offerings. If I wasn't sure before, this sealed it. Torres is determined to change the face of senior living cuisine.
BB Free: How did you come to be in charge of this kitchen?
Maria Torres: A friend of mine fell into a position with the company that was building the facility. She called me and told me about The Residences and that they didn't have a food service director. She said they wanted to do something radically different from institutional. I met with the CEO, the rest of the executive management team, brought my resume, my thoughts, some ideas and here I am.
BBF: And when you decided to take the job, what was your food service vision for the facility?
MT: I wanted to incorporate some of the principles from Oriental medicine and dietary therapies.
I also wanted to use some creativity in the menus to get away from what the institutional kitchen is linked to which is canned, processed, and frozen food, things that have no vibrancy, no energy, no life. I wanted to make meals besides the regular mac and cheese, the bland mashed potatoes, and the obscure meats on the plate. I immediately thought of David (Melendez) because I wanted to put together a team I knew would be on the same page, and I've known him for a long time.
BBF: Has this team been together from the beginning?
MT: David has, but he and Danny have known each other since their Navy days. They cooked on the same ships, been through the same training. We brought Danny in about two weeks ago.
BBF: What are the most important ideas you would like to share with the world about your vision that make it uncharted territory in institutional cuisine?
MT: We want to convey the message that we listen to what the residents want. We have been blessed with a parent company that has given us no restrictions, so we have been able to explore all the fresh produce and local ingredients that are available to us. And by local I mean our primary purveyor is a Florida-based company, and we can order foods in season. We have so much that grows right here in Florida. We expected to have a primarily Anglo population at the facility, and so far our residents are mainly Hispanic, so we're able to use a lot of local-grown ingredients to prepare dishes with that cultural flavor.
BBF: So how do you manage the delicate dance involved in combining what the residents want and what they need according to their individual medical histories?
MT: Florida licencing statutes require that our recipes are evaluated by a registered dietitian who puts them through a nutritional analysis to ensure that our menu overall is balanced and meets the requirements of the American Dietary Association. Our basic menu is NSA, No Sodium Added, and in preparation and on the tables we use sea salt. We also use pink Himalayan salt, pink or black Hawaiian salt, and kosher salt. They're all a little coarser so we know we're not overdoing the sodium.
BBF: Does the structure of your kitchen staff differ from that of other institutional kitchens?
MT: We have a group of executive chefs that have culinary training and background as opposed to what is usually found which is an institutional cook who has been in the kitchen for many years and graduates into this position. These gentlemen in my staff as well as I have private catering businesses of our own. We share a language about food that allows us to bring our ideas and bounce them off each other. We get excited about experimenting with ingredients and building on each other's creativity. And it's rubbed off on the rest of the kitchen staff, because now they also get excited with the process of learning how each dish is produced.
BBF: Considering all the effort you and your team are making to bring ingenuity to institutional cuisine, what myths would you like to debunk about it?
MT: That food is just another function of the facility, something you just check off a list three times a day. We believe in the premise that food is the cornerstone of every home, you take pride in feeding your people, you come together at the table, especially our generation and the residents' generation. We grew up at the table, something that is lost these days. We want to bring that feeling here. We dine together, we're a big family. It's very social, and for the residents living here, it's really the last frontier of what they have control over. They're on a schedule for waking up, dressing, medications, almost like boot camp, but with their food, they can still hold on to some control over what they want because we provide choices. We strive to help them retain some of their independence, their dignity, and encourage them to be active participants. We like to cook with a lot of color to visually stimulate their curiosity. Just because you're in an assisted living facility doesn't mean it's game over. That's the real myth. There is a lot more life to be lived.
BBF: What results have you seen so far from the execution of your vision?
MT: We've already seen some success stories. Some residents came in here with not the best nutritional profile, withered, if you will, in wheelchairs, and many are now on walkers. There is a direct correlation between food that is prepared in a way that maximizes its nutritional value so that it allows the body to do what is intended to do which is heal itself.
BBF: I'd like to know from the gentlemen, what are your personal goals as you embark on this adventure that Maria has begun?
David Melendez: We want to stay fresh and creative, to continue experimenting with new foods, and challenge the residents' palates as well as ourselves.
BBF: What is the most important lesson you've learned from working with Maria and with each other?
David Melendez: That we have to always be aware that every resident is different, that some may need more encouragement than others to try new things.
Danny Wells: I've known David for a long time, and he has a great work ethic. Both of them have taught me to think of this facility as the residents' mansion, and we work for them. We treat them as if they were members of our own families. The food is important, but I think the feeling of eating with friends makes them more open to new things.
BBF: Any final thoughts?
MT: One thing that is very different from the traditional ways is that family members want to come and eat with their resident. We've noticed a spike in guest meals, and families participating in our Happy Hours. That just doesn't happen in other places. We've had a senator, commissioners, the president of FALA (Florida Assisted Living Association), many VIPs coming through just to eat and check out what we're doing here. We're catering not just to the residents, but to their families, and by extension, the community.
This seems like the perfect time to transition into the best part of this experience, the tasting. The menu today is a choice of Angus beef meatballs or grouper with a fresh salsa of heirloom tomatoes, onions, yellow peppers and cilantro. The featured sides are a rosemary risotto, and roasted cauliflower and broccoli. Dessert was a pineapple upside down cake with a hint of mint, fresh raspberries and whipped cream.
I chose the fish, a generous, meaty, and savory filet, yet delicate enough to allow the salsa to do its part. The risotto was fragrant, cooked to a firm, creamy texture, with a luxurious flavor complemented by the fresh salsa and the lightly roasted vegetables.
Dessert was crisp, light on the sweetness, as expected, but full of flavor, the kind of dessert that puts a smile on your face on a warm summer day.
To witness first hand the powerful effects of good nutrition and loving care on someone who has relinquished to advanced age what once was fierce independence, is an experience that fills me with gratitude. My mother has not only regained her lost appetite, she is curious and adventurous about trying new dishes. Mom's third age is what it should be after a life lived with courage, and battles hard-fought. She glows again, she dances again, she's doted on and there's peace in her face. She deserves it.
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