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.
Foie gras, fresh lobster and prime rib aren’t items commonly seen on the menu at a senior living community. But they’re mainstays at The Clare, an upscale continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Chicago’s affluent Gold Coast neighborhood that unveiled a multi-million dollar makeover in 2015.
That’s largely the doing of executive chef Hagop Hagopian, who joined The Clare in 2012 after spending almost a decade overseeing kitchens in hotels and restaurants. Each day, Hagopian looks after the community’s three restaurants and uses his training to bring a “Michelin-star experience” to residents.
In addition to his talents as a chef, Hagopian is also well-versed in carving ice, crafting pastries and assembling intricate confectionary arts.
Senior Housing News recently caught up with Hagopian to talk about bringing upscale dining to senior living:
SHN: Describe the community where you work.
Hagopian: I would say it’s a fun, interactive, small town hidden away on Michigan Avenue in a 53-story building, where there’s many things to do at all times. There’s plenty of dining options and social interacting.
What’s a normal day like for you?
I get in in the morning. I answer all the cooks’ questions and get them started. I look at the produce. Look at the fish. Pre-taste everything. Instruct. I’m in charge of the stewarding as well, so I make sure the stewards are doing what they need to do. I also make sure the place is clean and sanitary and work with the sous chef, and the pastry side, as well.
Then, lunch service starts and we make sure they’re all set. So, either myself and the sous chef assists them for lunch or we send one of our lead cooks down there. And then lunch is over, and during this time I’m working with the PM staff. Between 2 and 5 p.m. is the time I train them. We make some food from the menu and the cooks and I get together and we’ll taste the food. We’ll construct it, like, hey, we need to add more seasoning. We need to work on the presentation.
Then, from 5 to 7:30 p.m., we’re in our dinner service. Usually, I’m cooking on the line. I’m not just standing there watching it, I’m with the cooks in there. So, either I’ll be in The Grafton restaurant, or I’ll be in The Bistro. I help them plate, help them cook, check everything.
At 7:30 p.m. when it’s all done, I’ll help them break down and then go upstairs and do any administrative tasks I need to do. Order food. See what fish is good we can use for the next day. Toward the end of the week, starting Wednesday, I see what’s on the market. I see what kind of fish is available. See what produce is good. Then we make our menus from there. We continuously work with our purveyors to make sure we get the best possible. If it’s too warm outside, we know brussels sprouts are going to be bitter, for example.
Let’s start with the third restaurant, which is on the 53rd Floor. That’s kind of my dining room, where we do modernist cuisine. So, you can see something like compressed short ribs with a bone marrow crust. We cook sous vide up there. They have numerous courses.
It’s a Michelin-star experience, definitely. We’ll bring Wagyu beef, we do all different kinds of cooking. We use things like transglutaminase to fuse some of the braised meats we do. It’s really advanced cooking.
On the 17th floor, in The Grafton restaurant, you’re going to see things like foie gras. Lobster. Everything is a la carte. Some of the vegetables you’re going to see are things like brussels sprouts with caramelized pears, roasted butternut squash with spiced apples. This past week, we had a chef charcuterie platter where we made everything. It included pork rillettes, chicken liver mousse, duck pastrami, duck pate, and we make our own mustard with that.
On our 9th floor bistro, which is casual dining, we usually do some French bistro food like steak frites. We’ll do coq au vin. We’ll do some American classics down there like chicken pot pie, pot roast. This week, it was a huge success, we did Mexican-style street tacos. And for an appetizer, they can get [menu selections such as] a shrimp cocktail with crab claws and oysters.
You’re competing against some of the best restaurants in Chicago. How do you think you stack up?
I’m not really the type to say we’re better than anybody. I will quote the residents that some of our lobster dishes are the best dishes they’ve ever tasted. They have their families coming in and saying they want to dine in the building because it’s the better of the restaurants. I have my own opinions, but there’s a lot of great chefs in this city and I don’t want to undermine them. I can only say that we take pride in our food, we buy the freshest possible ingredients. We buy Wagyu beef. We buy specialty produce. We have our truffles flown in from the Northwest that we pay $380 a pound for.
Absolutely. The a la carte menu is mine based off my rapport with the residents. If they do have a request, we meet it. If you come to me and say, I have my family coming in tomorrow and they all love halibut, I will order halibut just for you. Or if I have somebody who says they’re celebrating their birthday Wednesday and we need prime rib, I will make prime rib the special.
It’s really a collaborative effort. I’ve been there five years. A lot the residents have my cell phone number and they call me and let me know.
Is cooking for residents of a senior living community different than anything you’ve done in the past?
When I interviewed for this position, I said, I am not going to be a typical chef at a retirement community. I want to have restaurants. I’m going to do the style of cooking I know. That means I’m going to going to make my dressings and soups from scratch. I’m going to use the best quality beef that we can get. I’m going to be creative with the food. We’re going to cook in stainless steel pans.
If you ask me, we’re a restaurant. The building is full of restaurants. And so, it’s no different than what I’ve done my entire career. I think some communities just have a couple entrees that the residents can have daily. We have a full menu that changes every week, along with two different specials.
What’s challenging about your work?
It’s a wonderful job. It’s challenging every day. You’re playing personal chef to hundreds of people.
If we were a specific restaurant, I would say we do this very well. Our residents eat here every day, and we have to keep them engaged in the food and interested. That’s a challenge in itself. When you work in an environment like that, that’s what you focus on.
You are also known for your molded and shaped chocolate art. Can you talk about that?
There’s times we have special events where I do them. Now, because we’re so busy, to be honest with you, I don’t do it as much as I used to.
I do also handle the pastries, though. We do all the chocolate work for the pastries. So, we will airbrush the cakes, we will make chocolate decorations for the garnishes. We do make chocolate truffles for the holidays. Sometimes, I do a showpiece for the residents to have on display. We make our own truffles. We make little candies.
Valentine’s Day must be a big event at The Clare.
On Valentine’s Day, we airbrush our own chocolates. I buy these little heart molds, we fill them, then we empty it to make a shell. Then, we refill it with ganache and cap it. We do really unique things with chocolate.
How do the residents react when they see some of these confections?
The residents usually say, is this really for us to eat? A lot of the people who have been here a while know what we do with chocolate. The newer residents, though, they’re going to find out this Valentine’s Day.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Read previous From the Front Lines interviews:
Written by Tim Regan