Like many other chefs who’ve switched from commercial restaurants to onsite food service operations, Chad Myers is enjoying better work-life balance while facing challenges unique to his segment: senior dining.
So far, Myers says, the experience at Mill Valley Care Center, a CCRC with assisted living, skilled rehabilitation and long-term nursing care in Bellevue, Iowa, “has been great. As most chefs do, I love to make people happy. Transitioning from the country club world, going above and beyond and doing everything you can to make those members happy was something I was expected to do.”
Similarly, “in senior dining, those same tasks are appreciated,” he says. “But it’s a whole different tone. Don’t get me wrong, I miss being able to buy fresh truffles, foie gras and dry-aged beef, but the enjoyment created in this type of dining is very fulfilling to me.”
Myers identifies one of his greatest strengths in the kitchen as creativity, something he’s learning doesn’t just have to mean molecular gastronomy and pretty plates.
“Even though I have to dial back the ‘tweezer-artsy’ looking food, there is just as much enjoyment created for the residents and tenants with a perfectly braised piece of beef with homemade bread and properly seasoned mashed potatoes and gravy,” he says, admitting, “Let’s face it, the tweezer food may have been just as much for my enjoyment as for the people getting the plate.”
Photo: Savory and sweet are the keywords for fondue: Monterey Jack cheese and chocolate ganache got the party started.
To satisfy his “tweezer food” hankerings, Myers plans to do some charity dinners and pop-ups in the neighborhood “to keep my ‘fancy’ skills up to par,” he says.
Meanwhile, at Mill Valley, Myers has recognized hurdles: He’s got plans and ideas to change the perception of senior dining food, concentrate on sourcing and create more opportunities for scratch cooking.
“I’d love to be able to make every single thing from scratch, but it’s a slow transition with the staff, and it won’t happen overnight,” he says. “Being patient and dialing down the intense nature of perfection is a state of mind I have to be in. Over time, I know this facility will be at a level that it may never have been at, and it will feel good having an influence in that.”
Photo: Residents loved the strawberries to dip in chocolate.
Adding to the feel-good factor is the sense of community Myers strives to build by doing things like using residents’ recipes on the menu, working on a tasting menu featuring handwritten recipes from his mother and starting happy hours on the first Friday of each month with appetizers and mocktails.
“And each month I have an event planning meeting with the activities director of the facility,” Myers says. “She always has a printout of national holidays and special days for each month. I love brainstorming ideas and like to use my creativity in ways other than cooking. I always look for days that can be tied into food as we brainstorm, and National Fondue Month (February), seemed like something great that could be interactive as well as an opportunity to provide variety.”
So the fondue party was on! The melty dipping goodness went in both savory and sweet directions: Monterey Jack cheese sauce fondue in one corner, with veggies, apples, pretzel rods and beef sticks to dip; and chocolate ganache with cookies, strawberries and mini marshmallow skewers.
This event was a big success and he hopes to do more like it, Myers says.
“They really liked it. The people that are ‘teeth challenged’ as we say, loved the soft stuff, especially the strawberries,” he says. “The people that can chew really well enjoyed the vegetables. It reminded them of a crudité tray that you might get at a supper club.”