It’s lunchtime at Ironwood Estates seniors’ residence in St. Albert, and residents are clapping and nodding their approval of the cuisine.
Gone are the days of food fatigue when folks at retirement homes listlessly stabbed at gooey messes of boiled beef and burnt fish. At Ironwood Estates, a residence for independent living, every day is a foodie adventure.
Executive chef Jonathan Setterlund heads a team that daily prepares three meals and snacks for 109 seniors. He regularly plans an à la carte menu with several food choices cooked from scratch. Today is Robbie Burns Day and Setterlund has cooked haggis as a special appetizer. The entree varies from pork roast or glazed ham with all the trimmings to Asian stir-fry and a salami sandwich. The topper is apple crisp for dessert.
“I’ve always wanted to work in a retirement home. People are appreciative of what you do compared to restaurants where food gurus think they know it all,” says Setterlund, a NAIT culinary arts graduate.
Raised in Drayton Valley, Setterlund worked for a period at Hotel MacDonald before taking on a partnership role as executive chef at Suede Lounge. But the evening work was a conflict with his young family. After selling his share of the restaurant he did a three-year stint at Centennial Food Services, a local food distributor, before being lured back to the kitchen at Ironwood.
“They (retirement communities) are the wave of the future,” he said.
The facts back him up.
Hanging it up
More seniors than ever are hanging up home ownership in favour of retirement residences, and it’s one of the fastest growing sectors in the food industry. As more baby boomers retire, those working in the seniors residential sector expect the number of people living in these communities to double between now and 2025.
Governments are having a tough time meeting the demand. The private sector has stepped in to fill the gap, building retirement homes where residents pay for all the amenities and services, including meals, personal care, laundry, housekeeping, recreation and social activities.
It is the dining rooms and menu selections that become a big selling point. With a culture strongly influenced by the Food Network, families touring prospective homes with aging parents look for both nutritious and imaginative menus.
The dining room at Ironwood Estates and across town at River Ridge Seniors Community reflects the modern ambience that has the look and feel of a four-star hotel. White linen tablecloths, graceful wine glasses, elegant china and sparkling cutlery paired with palette-pleasing meals made from scratch are the new norm.
“Seniors need to get nutrition. Healthy meals prolong their life expectancy,” says Monika Paterson, lead cook at River Ridge.
Originally from Germany, Paterson has a post secondary degree as a manager for institutional cooking. Married to a military man, Paterson worked on several bases across Canada as a cook before finding her niche five years ago at River Ridge.
“Often it takes too much effort to shop and cook. It’s the first corner they (seniors) cut,” Paterson says. “That’s the reason they come here. Here they have a variety of tasty, healthy food. At home maybe they had cereal and toast for days.”
River Ridge is an assisted living facility with 120 seniors, including 25 Alzheimer’s patients in a locked unit. Paterson and her team follow a five-week, Canada food guide menu approved by a dietitian specifically tailored to aging taste buds.
Balancing traditional dishes with newer cuisine that carries a “wow” factor, Paterson gives her cooks the freedom to create exciting menus that focus on plating food that is flavour-rich with as much importance on presentation as taste.
Loaded with variety, the residents are offered two protein choices at supper. And while seniors enjoy traditional foods, it’s a misconception that they like bland dishes.
“One evening we might have pork chops with mushrooms and gravy and haddock with dill sauce. Or we might have roast beef and chicken,” Paterson says.
“We always have mashed potatoes. They love it. It’s easy to eat, easy to digest. And we have two vegetables. But the most important part of the meal is dessert,” she says, adding the kitchen employs a full-time baker.
Fruit is always available to anyone and is strongly encouraged for diabetics. But surprisingly, both River Ridge and Ironwood have no residents with allergies.
“This is a generation with not many allergies. The next generation will be different,” Paterson said.
Setterlund went one step further in explaining the phenomenon.
“The experts may say I’m wrong, but I think it’s because of what we eat and what we are served. They ate food straight out of a garden and they didn’t eat junk food,” he said.
Just buying the ingredients to whip up a flavourful meal is not enough. Treating residents like family is key to a successful dining experience.
For instance, Setterlund sets Thursdays aside for administrative work and has lunch with the residents. They are from many different ethnic backgrounds with varying needs and listening is a big part of his job.
“It’s important to know the clientele. I want to know what they want, what they like, the portion sizes, their medical issues. Learning about their past helps me to know their needs. The more relationships we have the better it is. After all, it is their home,” he said.
Paterson echoes the sentiment.
“This is like a hotel, but they are more familiar,” she said. “We treat them with respect, dignity and confidentiality. They share information, but keeping a confidence is important. We have a saying, ‘What happens at work, stays at work.'”
Working in the kitchen’s high-pressure atmosphere is a daily test of patience. But occasionally an unexpected challenge arises that requires a different spin on things.
Several years ago, River Ridge endured a one-day power outage and kitchen staff worked around it by preparing box lunches.
“We made box lunches and the residents loved it. It was basically a picnic lunch. They enjoyed it for one day, but not much more. Anything that happens outside their routine is stressful,” Paterson said.
When a major water line broke at Ironwood, Setterland picked up the phone and ordered 58 pizzas. Another factor that keeps him on his toes is unforeseen spikes in food prices.
“Two weeks ago, the price of zucchini was $17 a case. Now it’s $44 a case. And bananas, which are really important for potassium, went up $5 a case,” said Setterlund.
It is not uncommon for him to go through 64 four-litre bottles of milk, a huge cereal case and 350 pounds of potatoes in a week. A pork roast dish, such as the one he served on Robbie Burns Day, required cooking five pork legs. His budget is huge, almost unimaginable for the average family.
And while there is little that can be done about winter food prices except employ creativity, Setterlund grows a potted herb garden in the summer. Chives, basil, oregano, parsley, rosemary, sage, purple basil and thyme is used fresh or frozen into ice cubes and tossed in soup.
Meals have traditionally brought families together to share the day’s events. Good food and conversation continue to bring people together — both retirees and the younger generation serving them — in unexpected ways that enrich lives and expand horizons.