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Most professional chefs are well trained to cook for lots of different people with different tastes on any given day. But what if your job is to cook for the same 150 people every day? Not only do you have to be a versatile chef, but also you have to be a very good listener. Everybody has an opinion every day—and they’ll surely be back tomorrow.
Chef Bill Evanoff at Ecumen Seasons at Maplewood is walking down the hall, making his way back to the kitchen, when a resident pops out of the dining room and corners him. “Chicken noodle soup is noodles—not macaroni!” she says empathically.
“Hey, chef, be careful of that one,” another resident chimes in. And Bill just smiles, patiently listening. He knows a guy wearing a chef’s white coat is also wearing a flak jacket. And he can take it.
Chef Bill politely points out that macaroni and noodles are the exact same thing, just in a different shape, and that macaroni is a lot easier to eat with a spoon. But she is not persuaded.
And by the way, she says, there are some things she would like to see on the menu and she has some good recipes she would be happy to share.
“Well, I would love to have those recipes,” Chef Bill says. “Lots of people threaten to give me recipes, but as long as I’ve been here, I haven’t gotten a single one. Think about what you would like, and let’s talk about it again.”
Bill Evanoff means it when he says he wants suggestions. He holds a monthly food forum with residents and makes it a point to walk the halls so he can get regular feedback. He is a proud professional chef, who has worked at top area restaurants and is passionate about what he does. He knows the key measure of his success is what the residents think of the food he serves. “This is their home,” he says. “This is personal.”
“My challenge,” Bill says, “is to change the dining paradigm to a daily event that resembles a restaurant experience rather than a ritual.”
Bill also knows that as the food and beverage manager of a senior living community he has to overcome the stereotypical perceptions of bland, pureed food lingering on steam tables.
“You will not find any steam tables in my kitchen,” he says. “And I don’t serve food out of a box. Fresh, hot food beautifully presented is my passion—scratch-cooked food, prepared on an individual basis.”
Bill’s from-scratch kitchen includes the baked goods. Especially the baked goods. Pastry chef Kristy Shelly was a baker at Keys Café & Bakery in Hudson, Wisc., before coming here, and Bill characterizes her talents as “world class.” He advises never uttering the words “frozen pie” in front of her.
In fact, what got Kristy interested in working in this senior living kitchen was a bad experience with another senior community. “My grandmother was in a care center,” Kristy said, “and she just hated the food.”
Bill’s monthly food forums with the residents help ensure that any issues with the food or dining experience are addressed immediately. He encourages the residents to be very specific about things they didn’t like. “I want names and dates,” he says.
His most memorable criticism came back in August when the kitchen featured 16-ounce T-bone steaks grilled to order and residents complained that the steak was too big. “If the size of a perfectly grilled steak is the greatest concern coming from the residents,” Bill says, “I’ll definitely listen—and privately wear it as a badge of honor.”
Bill has 30 years of kitchen experience. Before moving into the senior living sector, he worked at restaurants such as Tejas, Bar Abilene and the Blue Horse, a special-occasion Saint Paul restaurant no longer in business that many of the residents remember. He has also catered some high profile political campaign events for Walter Mondale, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
At Ecumen Seasons at Maplewood residents order from a menu and everything is prepared to order. There are two seatings a day with a standard menu and one special each meal. But if you want something not on the menu, he will try to accommodate. As far as he is concerned, residents can have “anything they want within reason.” Once a month, there is a theme night. In October it was prime rib and popovers.
“We strive to create meals and desserts that people really enjoy,” Bill says. “It’s one of the best ways we can honor them.”