Dished: Attracting Top Chefs to Senior Living

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Photo by Tania Tuluie

With the evolution of food service in senior living, from cafeteria to full-service restaurant, comes a new attention to another important aspect of dining: Hiring.

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As “scoop and serve” models of the past are making way for restaurant-style dining services in senior living, providers are taking note of their hiring practices—which today involve recruitment of experienced chefs who, more often than not, do not have backgrounds in senior living.

Most say that in hiring for dining, there are two major differences between preparing food for senior living versus a restaurant clientele: first, a captive audience. Second, superior schedule and quality of life.

“The only difference is that in other dining segments, guests come in and go home,” says Morrison Senior Living Senior Corporate Executive Chef John Rifkin. “But here, it is their home. You have to be more on your game because this is where the residents live.”

From a business standpoint, however, Rifkin says the concept is the same: grow and retain business through superior service.

Largely, this has been a revolution over the past several years.

At Morrison, a member of Compass Group and a dining services company devoted exclusively to serving senior living clients, both nutrition and hospitality are pillars. Morrison has more than 150 registered dietitians, 200 executive chefs, 400 hospitality associates and 7,000 professional food service team members on staff to serve its more than 450 senior living clients.

The shift began roughly six years ago with a sea change in philosophy that meant offering restaurant-style service regardless of the dining venue, Rifkin says.

“Initially, our approach was very health care driven,” he says. “Even in independent living, the menus were written for skilled care. The service was organized like in a health care setting.”

Now, there is an emphasis on finishing dishes, plating and overseeing the food service and preparation from pan to flavor.

The hiring process follows. A written exam test basics: skills and knowledge of safety and cost. The last question asks applicants why they became chefs.

“We take that into consideration first,” says Rifkin.

Other companies have incorporated creative takes on a practical portion of the exam for applicants. At Evanston, Illinois-based CCRC The Mather, the search for an executive chef involved a Top Chef-style exercise based on a select market basket that tested the creativity of the applying chefs.

Five Star Senior Living recently employed the services of Chef Brad Miller, currently executive chef for L.A.’s The Inn of the Seventh Ray and a regular Food Network contributor. Miller has helped revolutionize Five Star’s dining services across its entire continuum of care and 267 communities—including some influence over its hiring process.

“There has been a stigma behind senior living food,” Miller told SHN during a recent interview. “But on the forefront of this change, the chefs are forced to be great.”

There’s an element of lifestyle change that takes place for chefs in senior living when they transition from restaurants, Miller says, noting that typical restaurant hours often go until the early hours of the morning and where nights and weekends are reserved for work. But additionally, the continuity of working for a consistent clientele rather than a dynamic one is a driver for recruiting those who are entering the business.

“You’re seeing the residents every day,” says Five Star Chief Operating Officer Scott Herzig. “If you didn’t do something right yesterday, you’d better make up for it today. You’re attracting those kinds of chefs who are wanting to make people happy every day. If you want to cook outside of a restaurant, there is no better place than senior living to impact people’s lives.”

The same held true in the company’s hire of Chef Miller.

“When we found Brad and decided we wanted to make the investment [in our dining program], we looked at several prominent chefs,” Herzig says. “Brad saw what we wanted to do and appreciated it. He saw the opportunity to make an impact.”

For some new hires, a learning curve is expected when it comes to a higher consideration for dietary restrictions among the aging population. But food trends and a global awareness of health and wellness are aiding in that transition.

“One of the things we are seeing lately is that good chefs are already focused on health and wellness,” Rifkin says. “That’s naturally happening where they’re already cooking in that style focused on eating right. But the biggest challenge if they don’t have senior living experience is the health care piece.”

Chefs from restaurant backgrounds are taking note, and they’re approaching their new senior living jobs as an opportunity to bring creativity into their kitchens—an opportunity they often did not have in their previous employment.

At Oakmont Senior Living’s Capriana CCRC in Brea, Calif., executive Chef Jackie Nabong brings a long history of working for Roy’s—a global, high-end Hawaiian fusion restaurant. At Chicago’s The Admiral at the Lake, Executive Chef Alejandro Arreola comes from The Ritz.

The pay tends to be comparable, Rifkin says, though some are even willing to take a pay cut when they transition from the restaurant world.

“I have seen chefs over the last three years take pay cuts to work in this industry,” he says, noting the turnover rate of Morrison’s employees has fallen from 20% across culinary positions three years ago to just 5.5% today.

“There’s a lot to be said for that,” he says. “When you work in restaurants, you never know who is going to walk in the door. When you get into senior living, chefs become close with residents. They start to hear the stories of their lives. That’s something they didn’t expect to happen.”

Written by Elizabeth Ecker

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