Refreshing Perspective on Cuisine in Senior Living.
It was refreshing to speak to a culinary visionary who has left an indelible mark on the world of food and dining. Meet Chef Jake Reimer, the founder of chefjake.org. With a career spanning various culinary landscapes, Jake has served as a corporate executive at both local and regional levels with Dining Management companies, excelled as a caterer, and lent his expertise as a consultant to diverse restaurant groups. His unique fusion of art and culinary skill has earned him recognition as a true cuisine creative, leaving those who appreciate his food and talents in awe of his extraordinary creations. Join us as we delve into the culinary world with Chef Jake and gain insights from his wealth of experience, specifically with senior living.
Q: Could you tell us what you see as one of the biggest changes from a culinary perspective in the last decade or so?
A: It’s difficult to choose just one in this challenging culinary landscape today as each head feeds the other. However, the combination of Covid, hot inflation, and the big embrace of technology, we are seeing a mass exodus of talent and hardworking cooks across the country who seek more money or a better lifestyle. They are tired of being short-staffed and the status quo. There is still talent and hard work going on out there, but the pool has significantly shrunk and it’s not going to let up anytime soon.
Q: Do you think this trend is similar to the scarcity of caregivers in senior living, where there’s a lack of a clear career path?
A: There are similar reasons, and it does correlate. I would say the big differences are that in a hospital or private home, a caregiver/nurse can make significantly more money, so that is a big challenge for communities in senior living. Just like culinary services, caregivers deal with many of the same other issues – staffing levels, hours, stress – that are far beyond cooking in a kitchen.
Q: Do you think the quality of food in senior living communities is not what it used to be?
A: As far as quality is concerned, that is case by case based upon the individual community, management company, and personnel. As a whole, it’s like comparing an NBA all-star from now to those of yesterday. The game has changed, food has evolved, and so has agriculture. In some cases, for the better and in other cases not so much. The most significant change is a growing awareness of healthier diets and products. The vegan industry is getting close to that trillion-dollar mark, and ten years ago, it was incredibly scarce and hard to find if at all.
Q: What are the main challenges senior living communities face today with their dining programs?
A: We’ve already discussed a few, like staffing, high costs, and inconsistency with suppliers. But I think the biggest issues are not new. Anytime you have a changing of generations, no matter what region you are in, you have a crowd that wants to eat differently than the generation prior. So, we have developed these Frankenstein-style programs trying to do too much to appease everyone individually, and quality is just not sustainable in most cases. So, we just keep piling programs and menu choices, venues, and more on top of what was already in place in fear of upsetting residents and clients both new and existing.
Q: What advice would you have for new or existing communities trying to shape their program moving forward knowing these challenges?
A: I think it’s pretty simple and no, it’s not robotics. Utilize technology in smart ways so residents can be involved in the process and help design a program around them and your staffing talent and infrastructure. You are not going to please everyone, but if you focus on everyday foods, for example, fresh free-range roast chicken or fresh seasonal vegetables that are cooked to perfection, you have already won the battle. Don’t focus on fancy stuff. Focus on foods we eat every day, which are going to keep the costs in range and be the most valuable to residents. Once you have a sustainable base program of everyday foods that are sustainable and executed well, then it’s easier to add on from there based on what residents are missing and what you can honestly handle well.
I would also say that work as a team and make sure your dietitian is involved in the process. They are scientists of food and can help shape a program that is balanced, compliant, and flavorful.
Q: What are five things dining programs in senior living should avoid?
A: There are several things to avoid:
- Continuing to pile on programs on top of ones that are not already working. You need a solid foundation.
- Having large menus – the bigger the menu, the more challenges you will face, and quality and consistency can suffer.
- Purchasing low-quality and heavily processed foods. A healthy balanced diet that is of good quality is achievable within budget constraints.
- Adding too many venues – focus your resources on what you have instead of overextending.
- Overpromising and underdelivering – honesty and transparency are key to resident satisfaction.
Q: As a potential resident, what should I look for in the dining program of a community I am interested in?
A: When considering a senior living community, here are some things to look for:
- Cleanliness – a clean dining environment reflects care and attention to detail.
- The genre of food – make sure the menus and food offerings align with your personal preferences.
- Staff engagement – happy and knowledgeable staff are a sign of a well-supported program.
- Talk with current residents – get their insights on what’s working and what’s not in the dining program.
- If there’s a dining management company involved, research that company. Know their goals and culture when it comes to people and food, as well as their sourcing practices.
Thank you, Chef Jake, for sharing your valuable insights on the challenges and opportunities in senior living dining programs and the importance of adapting to changing culinary landscapes. Your advice and recommendations are certainly helpful for both communities and potential residents.
Click here for chefjake.org