From the Front Lines: Meet Brookdale’s Competitive Chef

From the Front Lines is a new Q&A series from Senior Housing News. Our aim is to get out of the C-suite from time to time to focus on some of the interesting and dynamic people who work at the forefront of the senior living industry. Have a colleague who does something cool and works in a senior living community? Drop us a line.

As more senior living providers beef up their fine-dining options, they’re also hiring chefs with restaurant and hospitality experience. It’s a safe bet to assume few of them have former Food Network contestants, however.

Carol Koty, dining services coordinator for a Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) community in Wilton, Connecticut community breaks that mold. Though she spends most of her time on the job designing menus and holding weekly feedback sessions with residents, she moonlights as a competitive chef. Each year, she goes head-to-head in 20 to 25 competitions, including the illustrious World Food Championships held in Orange Beach, Alabama.

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Senior Housing News recently caught up with Koty to talk about how she balances her work with being a competitive chef:

SHN: Describe the community where you work.

Koty: Brookdale Wilton is really special. We have about 50 residents. It gives us the opportunity to really customize everything we do to each resident’s preferences. It’s mostly assisted living, and then we have about 15 residents in memory care.

How did you get started with competitive cooking?

I started competing in cooking competitions before I was even a chef. It’s actually one of the reasons I became a chef. Years ago, I was going to school to be a marine chemist. I was working at a bank. I just wasn’t feeling fulfilled. So I entered this pie-baking competition at this local fair, and I said, if I place at this competition, I’ll quit my job, quit college, and I’ll go to culinary school. And I ended up taking the blue ribbon. I won the whole pie-baking competition, so I did exactly that. I quit everything I was doing, enrolled in culinary school, and I never looked back. It’s one of the best decisions of my life.

How many events require you to travel?

I would say about a third to a half of the events are out-of-state traveling. A lot are online, where you’re doing it through a sponsored product. You submit photos and recipes. Some are here in Connecticut. This year I’ve had four or five local competitions, including the World Food Championships, which is the largest competition in food sport in the world. It’s a week-long, tournament-style competition. It’s kind of Olympic style in that you have to qualify.

This year, I’m competing in the recipe category, which is chicken. They have burgers, dessert, chili, barbecue. That week, there will be 400 total competitors. It’s multiple rounds of competition down to one winner.

Is World Food Championships like one of those shows you’d see on the Food Network?

I actually did do one of the Food Network shows once. I did “Guy’s Grocery Games.” I know what the TV show competition is like.

How did you do?

I was eliminated in the dessert round. [I made a ] poached pear stuffed with cranberry walnut and blue cheese, with a fresh spiced whipped cream. It was an interesting one. But it was a tight competition.

Is your boss OK with you traveling that much?

My executive director has been very supportive, as well. She loves what I do in competitions and she loves what I bring back after I’m done. We just arrange the schedule appropriately to make sure they’re completely covered and that I can still do my traveling.

You bring things back? Do you share the food you’ve made with your coworkers?

And the residents. I had a competition in September, the Connecticut Chef Challenge. I was competing for the title of best chef in Connecticut. I did an Asian-inspired coq au van with French flavors, all local Connecticut wines, and a little bit of an Asian twist to it.

And then you brought that back to Brookdale?

Well, for September, we had one lunch during the month that we called our big celebrations lunch. That was the featured dish. I got to make it for the residents that day. It was fun. I went out into the dining room and shared stories and photos from the competition. It was really engaging for everyone that was there.

Does being a competitive chef help you in your job at Brookdale?

In competition, stress management is number one. Being able to work under pressure, keep a level head. I’ve found that has helped me not only in my professional life, but also my personal life. Being able to be like, you know what, I got this.

The other element for me [is] creativity in the workplace. By going to these events, by talking to other chefs, you look around, you check it out, I’m like, hey, he’s using a technique I’ve never seen before and that made that really easy, I’m going to take that back with me. It gives me a lot of ideas either in streamlining something I already do, or new ingredients. It’s very enlightening.

What’s something you’ve learned from the competitions that you brought back to Brookdale?

The biggest thing I’ve brought back are techniques. Ways to do things we’re already doing that make it easier and make the final product better.

Do any coworkers or residents attend your competitions and cheer you on?

We haven’t had residents yet, but we’re definitely planning on it.

When you win, does Brookdale highlight your achievements?

They just announced I’m competing at the end of this month, and it went out in our internal email newsletter system to notify all the surrounding communities that I’m going. It’s really nice that, internally, we keep each other informed and that other communities are also cheering us on.

This interview was edited for clarity and length. 

Written by Tim Regan

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