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Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010

Tosa Retirement Community Goes Gourmet

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Hopefully the days of admitting our aging loved ones into an “old folks home” to live out their golden years eating pre-made frozen lasagna and powdered mashed potatoes are coming to a close. As the senior living industry becomes more competitive, retirement communities are realizing they can gain an advantage by offering high-quality dining to their residents. By adjusting this one facet of retirement living—the way the residents eat—a sea change is occurring in the way we, as a society, care for our elders.

When Justin Johnson signed on as the new executive chef of Harwood Place Retirement Community in Wauwatosa two years ago, the senior living community’s dining program was, as Johnson describes it, “institutional in every imaginable way.” Residents would eat all three of their daily meals—many of which were made with processed foods of the just-add-water variety—in an uninspired cafeteria-like dining room.

“There’s this mentality you see sometimes in retirement living, particularly among the kitchen staff, where they think the seniors don’t know the difference between good and bad food, or that they’ll complain whether it’s good or not,” Johnson explains. “And I knew that couldn’t be true.”

With the full support of Vice President Allison Katula, Johnson, a graduate of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago–Le Cordon Bleu, invested a considerable amount of money and time reversing Harwood’s dining program from an institutional program of easy-to-prepare and cheap-to-produce meals into a full-service, fine dining establishment.

“One of the first things I said to the staff when I started,” Johnson says, “was to forget about [residents’] age and run this like a restaurant… to pretend that everybody is coming here.”

The new chef quickly assessed that the kitchen was grossly understaffed. Frozen bread and pre-assembled meals don’t require a lot of hands, but that’s not the case for the fresh, seasonal produce and local meats Johnson was committed to serving. So he hired more chefs to prepare and cook the meals. He found that the servers were not only taking orders and delivering food to the tables, but were washing dishes as well. So Johnson separated the front-of-house from the back-of-house, and hired dishwashers, servers and a dining room manager.

Harwood Place commissioned Plunkett Raysich Architects to transform the lackluster dining hall into two light-filled dining areas: The Terrace, decorated with a landscape mural and quaint pergola, serves dinner, while The Arches has the casual feel of a coffee shop for breakfast and lunch.

Johnson created a diverse, creative seasonal menu that follows a four-week rotation and features two entrees for both lunch and dinner. The culinary style is a cross between New American and traditional French. Harwood Place residents visit The Arches for a standing menu of breakfast items like omelets and waffles, as well as a soup of the day and lunch standards such as burgers and sandwiches. The menu is divided by a “Sandwich Special” that features unique creations like the mojito chicken and pineapple sandwich or an authentic Greek gyro, and the “Chef’s Feature,” which includes dishes such as Swedish meatballs over noodles or shrimp with Asian barbecue over romaine lettuce.

Every evening, Harwood Place residents choose from either the “Dining Room Special,” which is a throwback to a classic dish such as grilled apple pork chop with creamy polenta and French beans or chicken parmesan over linguine, or the “Chef’s Feature,” which is usually something more contemporary like seared salmon Provencal with lemon herb risotto and baby bok choy or grilled jumbo prawns with cannellini bean ragout and sautéed watercress. Johnson hired a sous chef with a talent for baking and pastry, so seniors can rely on a fresh-baked sweet treat to close the meal.

Whether it’s breakfast, lunch or dinner, the 200 Harwood Place residents who eat at The Terrace or The Arches can depend on a wholesome, balanced meal made from scratch with fresh ingredients.n