Carmel Valley Manor, a 28-acre life plan community near Monterey on the Central California Coast, earned a senior retirement community “best” rating from U.S. News & World Report earlier this year for its independent and assisted living components based on responses from residents and their families. Areas rated included community & activities, management & staff, caregiving (for assisted living) and food & dining, for which the highest ratings were posted across the board for food/dining quality, meal variety, dining service and friendly staff.
It's going to get even better, says Executive Chef Greg Hiltunen, who oversees Carmel’s dining program.
“We’re in a full renovation mode right now of our independent living dining room and in the process of developing another eatery that we will be launching at the beginning of the year,” he reports.
Previously, Carmel had operated one main dining room for the independent living residents, along with separate dining rooms for assisted living and skilled nursing. They offered breakfast with hot choices and daily specials, fresh fruit bars in the independent and assisted living venues with a lot of locally sourced produce and house-made granola. Lunch was also a casual affair while dinner was somewhat more formal with base course specials rotated through a cycle menu supplemented by an everyday menu.
“One of the things I’m most proud of in our program is that we do incorporate a lot of organics,” Hiltunen offers. “We’re blessed to be in an area where we can have trucks from the nearby farms pulling right up to our loading dock four to five days a week. We’ve built some great relationships with them, and we are near the coast, where a lot of fresh fish come through.” In the summer growing season, as much as 75% of the community’s produce needs are met from local sources, he estimates.
Menus overall are seasonal to take advantage of what those trucks bring in during the different times of the year. The freshness and quality are huge benefits of local sourcing, Hiltunen says. “It’s nice to have it be that direct and not be going through a warehouse and having product sit an extra couple of days in transition.”
In terms of proteins, there is seasonal fresh seafood from Monterey Bay like king salmon in the summer and Dungeness crab late in the year. Hiltunen says at least half of seafood he serves is local and none of it is frozen. Neither is any of the meat.
“Everything is fresh product, and we incorporate organic proteins as much as we can,” he says, adding that working with local suppliers allows Carmel’s dining program to live in a “fresh catch society” where close relationships with suppliers allow quicker and more efficient menu adjustments to what is available and what is not. “It gives us the ability, if something is not there, to say, ‘here’s my audible,’ and it’s going to be just as good and just as fresh.”
When Hiltunen joined Carmel in 2018 after a career that included stints as corporate chef with Aramark and as a food truck business operator, he brought a new emphasis on more menu variety that today’s seniors are looking for, including more plant-based and vegan choices. As an example of this commitment, he cites Carmel’s signing on to the Blue Zones Project, which stresses menu options from the world’s five “blue zones,” that is, regions where people tend to live longer lives and the cuisine tends to be plant-forward using fresh ingredients.
However, for now, with the main independent living dining room closed for the renovation, meal service has been temporarily shifted to the community’s meeting house with food prepared in the main dining room’s production kitchen across the street and carted over.
“The transition was a bit challenging at first for both residents and staff,” Hiltunen admits, “but we’ve definitely found a comfort zone with it, and we do now have a good vibe in there. One benefit is the intimacy the room seems to have created because it’s not as big as the other dining room, so sometimes you have to sit with somebody you maybe have never sat with before.”
The looser nature of the temporary dining venue also offers a glimpse of what to expect from the new dining outlet scheduled to open next year. Hiltunen says it will be a “bistro” kind of eatery (though the name has yet to be determined) with a casual vibe that will offer an alternative to the more formal main dining room, which will be operating separate breakfast, lunch and dinner services rather than the continuous 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. service that it offered previously. That all-day role will now be filled by the new casual outlet, which will also have grab and go options for those preferring not to linger.
The skilled nursing facility dining room, meanwhile, is getting a light refresh with some new equipment and furniture. That outlet and the assisted living dining room basically serve the same menu as the main independent living dining room each day, but with each producing the food in its own dedicated kitchen facility.
All residents have a meal delivery option and can pre-order. Meal delivery obviously was vastly expanded during the COVID period when communal dining areas were closed. Today, the only lingering residue of that period involves staff masking (something encouraged but not required for residents) and the elimination of self-service—even salad bars are now staff-serve stations.
Hiltunen admits he knew little about senior dining when he took the job after some 20 years in hectic, high-volume kitchens, but soon developed a great appreciation for it. “To this day, the best thing about my job is the relationship I have with the residents,” he says.
Carmel Valley Manor is a premier senior living operation with amenities such as a fully equipped fitness center with professional staff, swimming pool for lap swimming or water aerobics, scenic trails for enjoying nature and fresh air a community garden where residents can grow vegetables or flowers. Its continuous care platform allows residents to move among the differing levels based on their needs.