Dished: Hospitality Meets Senior Living in CCRC Dining Evolution

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Photo credit: James Kruml

Not all senior living dining programs have the tall order of competing with some of the world’s most renown chefs and restauranteurs.

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But increasingly, that’s exactly what they are up against as new residents are younger at heart, and with stronger preferences when it comes to dining out.

For Chicago’s The Clare, a continuing care retirement community based in the heart of the city’s Gold Coast neighborhood, that was the challenge the community faced when it opted to break its existing food service contract a year and a half ago, on the heels of new ownership, in favor of a complete overhaul of its dining program.

Rather than seek expertise from senior living veterans, The Clare looked to several professionals with hospitality backgrounds outside of senior living to man the transition and bring the new program to fruition. With the hires of Brian Hughes, director of dining services and Hagop Hagopian, the community’s executive chef, the community has implemented a completely new approach to food in senior living—and holding its own among Chicago’s most coveted fine dining destinations is a testament to its approach, The Clare says.

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“We’ve really reinvented what we are doing here at The Clare,” Hughes says. “In most communities you’re dealing with a menu that never changes. It may be the same a la carte options and a couple of specials. Here we do an a la carte menu that changes every week and specials that change every night.”

Hughes, along with Chef Hagopian found an entirely clean slate once vacated by the past provider, which had stripped the kitchen of every item, down to the last recipe they were using. They immediately began to create the dining services program taking cues from the country clubs where they had worked previously.

During the interview process, Hughes said the approach was not typical of a health care or retirement community, but of Chicago’s Peninisula Hotel, which sits just a few blocks from The Clare.

“That’s my competition,” he says.

Like in the country clubs he worked for previously, Hughes and his staff adapt the menu to what’s fresh, rather than seeking ingredients based on menu plans.

“We’ll call the fishmonger and ask what he has in today. We don’t write a menu just because it’s a menu we want to write,” he says. “Just like a fine dining restaurant, we call purveyors to find out what is fresh and new. It’s a captive audience, and if you’re not staying fresh, the residents are going to lose interest in you.”

Progamming at The Clare often revolves around food—something Hughes implemented often in his days working for country clubs. From themed dinners such as Octoberfest and wine tastings to a recent course on beer making that involved tasting four local beers and learning about the fermentation process, the staff finds the residents eager to not only enjoy food, but learn about it and prepare it. Residents later took the beers and infused them into dipping sauces for pretzels.

Residents can dine whenever they wish, as in any restaurant or hotel. They’re not limited to one, or even two seatings. This can create pressure on the kitchen and dining room, where The Clare will expand its seating beyond the formal dining room if demand dictates it to do so, but it also offers all the flexibility of a fine dining restaurant.

For Chef Hagopian, the transition from restaurants and country clubs presented some new challenges, but also some realized upsides, he says.

“What attracted me to the job was the commitment to what they expect,” he says. “We have a very generous budget and there’s steady business here. In hotels and restaurants you don’t know if you will have a full dining room or not. But this environment allows us to staff consistently.”

Some notable changes involved food preparation, such as breaking down lamb loin rather than serving it bone-in to be mindful of residents who might not be able to navigate the bone with fork and knife, and also adapting to an extremely small, city-sized kitchen because of The Clare’s urban location, which means a careful eye toward ordering.

“You have to be on point when you order product,” he says. “Not too much where you waste space, and not too little where you run out.”

When it comes to food, Hagopian prepares based on his experience in restaurants and hospitality establishments. During a visit with SHN, he prepared a lamb loin with peas two ways and curried potatoes—a new spin on the elements that compose a traditional Indian samosa.

“This is a dish you’d find at a Michelin starred restaurant,” he says as he prepares the plate, adorned with micro herbs and edible flowers. It’s a process, he says: “Take note of the shape of the food, and the dish to make sure they are in balance.”

Hagopian, who also has a penchant for chocolate-making, is in the process of turning his office—kept perfectly at 65 degrees—into a chocolate room on site.

Photos by James Kruml