Dished: How Five Star is Overhauling Senior Living Dining

Photos by Tania Tuluie

Fifteen chefs, four 50-pound sea bass, a celebrity food personality, a ticking clock and one secret surprise ingredient. It looks, sounds and feels just like something you’d see in a Food Network studio.

Close. It isn’t the Food Network, but it is a top chef challenge. The catch: all of the chefs are employees of Five Star Senior Living, gathered in late July to showcase their talents.

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The event is the second chef challenge for Five Star, which has made a major play toward an overhaul of its food and dining program over the last 12 months. Earlier this year, Five Star gathered chefs from its Mid-Atlantic communities to the Washington, D.C. area to compete. Then again in July, the company flew 15 chefs from its communities across California and Arizona to compete in a professional Sysco test kitchen outside San Diego. At the helm of the event—and Five Star’s new approach to dining—is celebrity Chef Brad Miller; a Food Network contributor and current executive chef in Southern California.

Together, they have set out to change the face of dining in senior living completely.

The 15 competing chefs arrive to the test kitchen with knives and their chefs’ coats, prepared for whatever secret ingredient the competition would bring. Never having met one another, they break into four teams and began to strategize: which chef has brought the best knife skills? Which chef will serve as the team leader and spokesman? Who is best with sauces? Who is quickest under pressure?

As the clock begins to count down from 60 minutes, Five Star executives unveil the first secret ingredient: whole, Southern California-caught sea bass—at 50 to 60 pounds a piece.

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The chefs’ challenge is clear: prepare a meal based around the bass, including filleting and deboning the fish, preparing sides, reducing sauces, assembling salsas, then finally presenting their final product to a panel of judges comprising Chef Miller, Five Star executives and two residents of a local Five Star community The Remington Club in Rancho Bernardo, Calif.

But the challenge itself is part of a much greater initiative established just about a year ago by the senior living operator: change its approach to dining. Not that its old way of doing dining was broken; across its 260-plus communities, the company had already taken a restaurant-style approach to its food services. But now, with the help of Chef Miller, the company is taking a closer look at how it does dining, down to its recipes, menu descriptions and incorporation of residents.

“Dining is a big part of why people choose a certain living setting over another,” says Five Star Chief Operating Officer Scott Herzig. “We thought: We need to take this dining experience to the next level.”

The overhaul of its dining program began with the partnership with Miller and has since included an upgrading of menu options and showcasing of its chefs’ talents through events like the challenges in San Diego and Washington, but also locally by putting a larger emphasis on dining in each of its communities.

“I thought, let’s get together to address the itty bitty things like how we can plate differently and a little bit healthier,” Miller recalls of his initial approach to the task at hand. “How could we make this healthier, but also taste amazing?”

Miller partners with the chef and dining managers across communities through a series of “tip videos” and menu plans. He’s accessible to them via email on a regular basis to answer questions and serve as a guide to help brainstorm and fine tune ideas. A basic cobb salad, for example, is prepared with paprika dressing. Instead of the traditional hard boiled egg, Miller’s recipe includes a soft poached egg that oozes over the salad when it is eaten.

“This dresses it up,” Miller says. “It’s the same thing, but we call it something different, it tastes different and we’ve gotten really good feedback.”

Varying tastes

One challenge facing Five Star relates to the size and scope of its portfolio of properties. At 267 properties strong, the company’s communities range from very high end, to more affordable. And, its communities span 31 states, meaning often there are regional preferences that need to be considered in menu planning.

“A chef will tell me, “My residents won’t eat X,” Miller says. “I say, put on your East Coast or Southern flair. As any chef will tell you, you know your customers.”

Operationally, this comes into play as well. A recipe that Miller wrote for pan roasted halibut plays better in the higher-end locations. But the same recipe is adapted for catfish in the south, or tilapia as a lower-cost fish in the more affordable communities.

The same goes for hamburgers. In California, residents may prefer grass fed, while in the Midwest, they are accustomed to corn-fed beef.

But the approach is cost neutral for this reason, Herzig explains.

“[With the tip videos], we’ll do healthy, decadent, holiday tips and how to do to turkey dinner a little differently. And it’s all cost neutral,” he says. “It’s incredible.”

Dining and sales

Though it is early for metrics, just months into the program shift Five Star is seeing results, not only in resident feedback, but also in sales and marketing. In the Mid-Atlantic region, which held the company’s first chef challenge event, the company has noted a slight uptick in sales activity, but also a much greater presence of dining and the chef in the communities.

On a recent visit to the region, Herzig noted marketing and advertising materials centered around a community’s chef, placed front and center for all visitors to see upon entering.

“Usually, [the chefs] were behind the scenes [previously]. Now we have a different appreciation for them. Some have resumes like you wouldn’t believe—chefs and sous chefs who have worked some pretty incredible restaurants. Some people think you work in senior living, so you must not be that talented. We’re finding the complete opposite to be true.”

“We’re also selling to the adult kids,” he says. “It’s helping to have the kids understand this is not what they were used to seeing 20 years ago…. It gives the salespeople something to sell. That’s the other side of this. We took the tips, put them into a DVD for all inquiries or people who stopped by, and now can give them a video.”

Chef challenges

The chefs who gathered in California had never met prior to the event. Yet they left the event having worked together toward a common goal, and having made an in-person connection with Chef Miller—another takeaway from the events.

With about 40 minutes left on the clock, Miller stops the timer to make an announcement—a surprise is coming, he says, presenting each team with four enormous California spot prawns. The crustaceans are still alive as they meet the chefs at their stations, their tails and tentacles wriggling and their beady black eyes staring back at the chefs.

“Prepare an amuse bouche,” Miller says, “in addition to your main course.”

The chefs don’t skip a beat; there’s no time to spare. They begin peeling the live shrimp immediately, most still squirming in the chefs’ hands as they are prepared into the amuse bouche—a one-bite course that is meant to incite the palette and is often found on tasting menus across fine dining restaurants.

When the time expires, the chefs have compiled four completely different meals: one has prepared ceviche from the prawns, another crusted them in panko breadcrumbs, a third battered them tempura-style. For the bass, one team has created sun-dried tomato pasta from scratch to accompany it, another adorned the fish with a spicy mango salsa and a third soy marinated with Thai flavors.

The teams show they have proven themselves with glowing reviews from the judges panel, including two Five Star residents. While the panel judges aren’t entirely sold on pulling the meat from the prawns’ heads as Miller recommends, they are happy to weigh in on their thoughts—positive and constructive. One took a doggy bag to go with the leftovers.

The community is stronger for it, Five Star says, and the interest around food continues to grow both among residents and among prospective sales.

“It’s definitely something for our sales people to sell,” Herzig says. “We have great services and activities and now this food program is something that, all things being equal, we think pushes us over the edge.”

Written by Elizabeth Ecker with photos by Tania Tuluie

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