A surly restaurant critic takes a bite of the French vegetable dish called ratatouille and his heart melts, as he is transported back to eating his mother’s version in his childhood.
This is a climactic moment of the animated film “Ratatouille,” and it’s the kind of dining experience that chefs around the world aspire to create. Michael Pezzillo is no exception. Pezzillo is an executive chef with senior living dining services provider Sodexo, and he works at Garden Spot Village, a nonprofit continuing care retirement community in New Holland, Pennsylvania.
“I want to get that Ratatouille moment, that moment in the film where he eats the food and gets that memory,” Pezzillo said at the recent Dished event hosted in Chicago by Senior Housing News.
Using dining to tap into memories can be especially powerful for people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias. At Dished, Pezzillo and other experts in senior living dining shared some of their ideas for pleasing palates in memory care by turning back the clock for residents.
The same dishes that they enjoyed earlier in life—including in independent living—can often be served to memory care residents in different forms, Pezzillo said.
He demonstrated this in the Dished teaching kitchen. First, he made a cacciatore-style Mediterranean chicken, featuring sautéed chicken, arborio rice, capers, garlic, peppers, pine nuts, tomatoes, and fresh herbs. Then, by shredding the chicken and turning the vegetables into a tapenade, he used all the same ingredients to make baked arancini balls, which could be eaten as a finger-food by memory care residents who have trouble with silverware.
In so doing, he took inspiration from one his own earliest culinary memories.
“The arancini, I came up with that idea based on my heritage, my grandmother used to make these,” he said.
Offering the same flavor profiles that people are used to from earlier in their lives helps create that Ratatouille effect, he added.
“I want the resident to eat that dish and get that memory,” he said. “This is one way of doing that. I can not lose the integrity of the plated IL dish and I can flip it into this [other dish], which is just beautiful.”
This practice also has operational benefits, such as saving on food costs and creating efficiencies by drawing on the same ingredients across levels of care, Pezzillo said.
The same points were echoed by Jose Luna, executive chef at Vi at the Glen, a Chicago area life plan community operated by Vi Living. Chicago-based Vi operates 10 upscale life plan communities around the country.
“For memory support, we do no shortcuts,” Luna said. “If you do filet in independent living, you’ll do a filet in assisted living and memory support.”
Luna also demonstrated his skill in adapting ingredients to create two different dishes, making both an entree and salad version of Moroccan-flavored salmon. And he too emphasized that serving food in memory care should not mean skimping on flavor or complexity, urging Dished attendees to marinate meats and sauté ingredients such as cumin seeds to bring out the flavor.
The Nutty Buddy lesson
For people with more more advanced dementia, even gourmet finger-foods like Mediterranean chicken arancini might not hold appeal. It can be all the more important to take this group of residents back to earlier times through food—and that can mean throwing sophisticated flavors and even nutrition out the window, according to Chad Ellis, food and beverage director at Abe’s Garden Manor & Park, a memory care and independent living community in Nashville.
“I had a woman who was 70 pounds and losing three pounds a month,” he said. “Her son said she grew up eating Nutty Buddies. I got her a box and she ate the whole box that day.”
The Little Debbie treats are a far cry from health food, but compared to the resident consuming nothing, the peanut butter-chocolate bars provided valuable calories, he pointed out.
Prior to admitting a new resident to their memory care wing, Abe’s Garden interviews the resident or the resident’s loved ones and even visits their home, to see what they’ve been eating. Having this background has helped reverse a trend of residents losing weight, which was happening even though Abe’s Garden hired well-regarded chefs and had cutting-edge facilities upon opening about three years ago.
Dining also goes beyond food, so memory care communities should not only consider what residents are used to eating but how they are used to experiencing mealtimes, said Michael DeGiovanni, vice president of culinary services at Morningstar Senior Living. Denver, Colorado-based Morningstar operates 22 communities, including two standalone memory care buildings.
Morningstar maintains the same standards of service in memory care as in independent living, including offering scented hand towels after meals, DeGiovanni said.
In addition, Morningstar does family-style dining once or twice a month. This involves inviting residents’ families to join the meal, and arranging seating at tables of eight to 12 people. Large plates are passed around, and people choose what they want to eat.
“We’re trying to re-create Sunday dinner, and residents love that,” DeGiovanni said.
As these examples show, it may take some creativity and effort, but providers should be confident that it’s possible to create magical moments in memory care dining.
“There are so many ways to do that,” Pezzillo said.
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Written by Tim Mullaney