Elevated Culinary Experiences Abound

By Lynne Brandon

Imagine a restaurant where the same customers return every day and bring selective and sophisticated palates. It is a scenario that could strike fear in the most accomplished chefs and describes a lifestyle that residents in Triangle and Triad retirement communities have come to expect. The elevated culinary scene in retirement communities has put the days of cafeteria-style cuisine in the rear view mirror.

The new culinary landscape found in retirement communities features produce from local or North Carolina farms, healthy protein choices and foods made fresh daily, seasonal menus and with no processed foods in sight. Highly trained chefs, some from elite culinary backgrounds, are transforming the senior dining experience like never before.

Culinary Experiences - Brookridge - Chef Eric NooeChef Eric Nooe at Brookridge

Culinary Experiences - Arbor Acres - Chef Jolie Shafer
Chef Jolie Shafer at Arbor Acres

The dining program at Arbor Acres tailors its offerings seasonally. Special meals are served for holiday celebrations but the dining staff goes further with creative menus throughout the colder months.

In the winter months, menus include roasted root vegetables and hearty soups. Hot apple cider is common through the season, but Dining Director, Erin Perkins, (Dining Director of the Year by the Senior Dining Association) and Executive Chef, Jolie Shafer, also plan special events to warm residents’ palates.

A standout event is the annual Raclette party, which is a dish native to Switzerland featuring melted cheese with fresh vegetables, breads, fruits, and a charcuterie board. Residents also enjoy National Hot Chocolate Day in the winter with a cocoa bar.

Multiple dining venues offer options from casual to fine dining. The Book Nook is a warm and cozy spot to have a light lunch with a tuna melt sandwich and soup and a book by a warm fire. For dinner, Steak Diane might whet the appetite. A full grill menu as well as a daily buffet and an action station gives residents choices with seasonal foods including chicken and dumplings, pot roast, casseroles, lasagna, and others. The salmon “detox” super food salad is a popular winter salad.

“Creating and serving, good, nutritious, beautiful, food is what motivates me,” said Chef Shafer. “After working in the food and beverage business for more than 30 years it has been my life’s work taking care of people.”

Culinary Experiences - The Cambridge at Brier Creek - Food
Dinner at The Cambridge at Brier Creek

Chef Michael Vealey, Food & Beverage Director at The Cambridge at Brier Creek, comes from a restaurant background in Wilmington, North Carolina. To Vealey, inspiration often starts with the residents. “Many of my menu ideas for The Cambridge come from a variety of places, old recipes from places I previously worked, items requested by our residents, watching different cooking shows to spark ideas, and of course just sitting down and trying to mix and match new flavors,” said Vealey.

When the weather gets colder, Vealey, and staff offer some of their most beloved dishes, such as house-made soups, including a rich and creamy tomato bisque, and a hearty vegetable soup that’s perfect for a chilly evening. Chicken Marsala, made with tender chicken breast and a savory mushroom sauce, is a crowd-pleaser that’s both flavorful and healthy. And for those craving something comforting, pot roast is slow-cooked to perfection and served with roasted root vegetables.

“But that’s not all,” said Vealey. “This season, we’re also introducing a new dish that’s sure to become a favorite: our turkey French dip. Made with tender sliced turkey and melted Swiss cheese, served on a warm baguette and accompanied by a savory au jus for dipping, this sandwich is the perfect combination of hearty and delicious.”

Culinary Experiences - Salemtowne - Beet Salad
Beet Salad at Salemtowne

At Salemtowne, Executive Chef Tim Martin points his culinary journey to time spent in his grandmother’s kitchen. “When other kids would go outside to play, I would stay inside and watch my grandmother cook,” Martin said. “That’s where my passion for cooking began.”

During cold weather months, Martin says soups, including pumpkin and butternut squash, are popular. All soups are made from scratch daily using only fresh, seasonal ingredients. “No soup at Salemtowne ever comes from a can,” he stated. In addition to winter soups, popular menu items include salmon, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and filet mignon. “The only person who makes better mac and cheese than what we serve at Salemtowne is my mother,” Chef Martin added. And, I would put our filet mignon up again the best steakhouse.”

From the beginning, we knew that good food would be important at Well•Spring,” stated Lynn Wooten, vice president, marketing and public relations. “We have residents who have traveled broadly and are used to good food so we have always emphasized our culinary program.” Wooten continued, “The culinary program under Director of Dining, Todd Dumke, is flourishing as many refer to Well Spring as the ‘best restaurant in town’.”

Well Spring has theme nights with ethnic dishes highlighted (Indian Butter Chicken is a favorite) and during the holidays goes the extra mile. During the holidays, residents were treated to a special holiday meal with surf and turf entrees and Lobster Thermador.

Residents have plenty of dining options at Well Spring with upscale dining at Weaver Dining Room or the Bauman Bistro, a popular option for wood-fired pizza and sandwiches. The Southern Oak Bar and Lounge is popular all year for an after dinner cocktail.

Culinary Experiences - Well Spring - Chef Agron Ramadani
Chef Agron Ramadani at Well Spring
Culinary Experiences - Well Spring - Food
Food at Well Spring

Chefs at Kisco Senior Living properties come from restaurant, resort and country club backgrounds with the ability to create decadent foods as well as comfort. Our food is a huge deciding factor,” said Ernest Fong, Culinary Operations, Kisco Senior Living. “Food is important to our residents, and we encourage people to dine with us when they take a tour. It is the major deciding factor for many of our residents who want to have their favorite restaurant experience and not just nourishment,” said Fong.

He continued, “Senior living cuisine has evolved greatly in the past decade, and we have a population that is looking for experiences similar if not the same as if they were to go to their favorite restaurant.”

Culinary Experiences - Abbotswood at Irving Park - Food
Food at Abbotswood at Irving Park

Joshua Adams, Dining Services Director at Abbotswood of Irving Park (Kisco), draws inspiration for his menus from a variety of sources. “I love exploring different cuisines and flavors, so I often experiment with recipes from around the world to keep the menus fresh and exciting,” Adams said. “Cooking for seniors is a deeply rewarding experience for me. I am inspired by the opportunity to make a positive impact on their lives through food. Knowing that I am making a difference is what motivates me every day.”

“They appreciate dishes that are rich in flavors and provide a sense of nostalgia,” Adams continued. Comfort foods and soups are popular along with warm desserts like apple pie or bread pudding when the temperature drops.

Derek St. Domain, Dining Services Director, is over the culinary program at Heritage Greens (Kisco) where he feeds around 300 residents. It is not scary to the chef who had a catering business in New Orleans and lived through Hurricane Katrina. “I run 4 kitchens with a rotating menu for five weeks and an always-available menu (baked chicken, baked salmon, sweet potato, salads, greens, etc.). The residents do not expect fine dining but they have discerning tastes. They like comfort food like casseroles, cassoulet and gumbo but they want it done correctly and presented well. As long as the food looks good and is good I let my staff have freedom to create dishes that they want,” said St. Domain.

Culinary Experiences - Waltonwood Cary Parkway - Chef Kevin Crane
Chef Kevin Crane at Waltonwood Cary Parkway

“The WWII generation was more into cafeteria food but the Baby Boomers expect restaurant quality food,” stated Nick Long, marketing manager, Waltownwood Cary Parkway. A dinner tour is offered for new residents to acquaint them with the menu. “We try to accommodate all palates and serve fresh, local produce and food from North Carolina,” added Executive Chef Kevin Crane who has a team including a sous chef and pastry chef. “We are a ‘scratch’ kitchen and we make much of our food in-house from soups, salads and more. Our sous chef preps dishes from chicken, pork shoulders, and beef loins, to squash, sweet potatoes, beans and collard greens.

Soup is popular in the winter and Waltonwood produces an astonishing 14 soups a week with two daily choices (butternut squash bisque and tomato bisque are favorites). It is not unusual to find beef tartare, Veal Marsala, quail breast and lamb on the menu, along with Asian and ethnic dishes. “The southern palate is catered to but we also have New York Clam Chowder on the menu,” said Crane.

Life at Searstone is going to be more flavorful in 2024 when four new dining options, including a new take-out concept are introduced. The new venues will join two onsite eateries resulting in a diverse and rich culinary experience. “Searstone dining is designed to encourage relaxed interaction and engagement among residents over meals and we are excited to introduce these expansions for a total of six restaurant options for residents,” said,” Allie Ligay, Sales and Marketing Director for Searstone.

Residents are already savoring the good life with menus centered on fresh ingredients. The diverse menus accommodate all tastes for causal meals, as well as Wine Club events along with the occasional Chef’s Table four-course special events. Not in the mood for a large meal? The White Horse Bar & Grille is the perfect spot to kick back and catch up with friends over an appetizer or a drink.

Culinary Experiences - Searstone - Formal Dining RoomSearstone formal dining room

Culinary Experiences - Springmoor - Dessert
Dessert at Springmoor

Expect a stellar food and dining experience at Springmoor. The culinary staff and Executive Chef Matt Love are always up for the challenge of bringing high quality foods and inventive menus to residents. Springmoor is known for throwing special events like the Dessert Party with re-invented culinary delights by combining old-school desserts with a new-age flare. Nine desserts delighted residents such as: Mini Cannoli & Cream, tartlets (pumpkin, sweet potato and pecan), Chocolate Covered Strawberries, Blueberry Shortcake & White Chocolate Mousse Shooter and more.

“Each month I determine what my action station will be and some of those ideas have found their way onto our monthly menus,” said Love. “Our action stations are weekly and allow residents and guests the ability to build their own dish.” Popular action stations are the Macaroni & Cheese Bar, Loaded Baked Potato Station and Crepes & French Toast Bar. The taste of Indian, Thai and Italian are in the forecast for the future, adding to the already elevated culinary landscape at Springmoor.

Wellness and eating well go hand-in-hand at Brookridge. We want to elevate the level of food we offer our residents and to do that we brought in a new executive chef, Eric Nooe,” says Jennifer Bartscht, Vice President of Sales and Marketing. “Having choices is important to our community and we want to be sure to have enough options in menu and venues (formal dining and a café for breakfast and lunch). We believe having healthy food options is important and Eric is working with our wellness coordinator to offer more menu selections that correspond with their diets.”

“We educate our members about wellness and what that means for their health and well-being, including healthy foods from each food group with nutritional balance and variety,” says Nooe. “We provide cooking demos and information on the nutritional value of recipes presented, so they can apply what they learn in their own shopping, food prep, cooking, and dining experiences.” In January, which was “heart awareness” month, Nooe, showcased new heart healthy recipes like Italian Stuffed Turkey using red and yellow bell peppers. He also highlights a variety of diets that can contribute to good heart health such as the Mediterranean Diet on the wellness menu.

Culinary Experiences - Preston Pointe - Chef Chris Zebney
Chef Chris Zebney at Preston Pointe

Food Service Director, Chris Zebney, likes to get feedback that he uses in the kitchen to prepare healthy food choices at Preston Pointe. “We believe in using fresh and high-quality ingredients from reputable suppliers,” says Zebney. “For example, we use center-cut applewood smoked bacon, and buy prime and select beef instead of “choice,” and do not have any processed foods.”

“We focus on service and if someone wants breakfast any time of day, we will do it. I believe in individual attention and don’t like to say “no” to anyone. We also focus on serving healthy foods like pizza with gluten-free crust as well as stick-to-your ribs foods like chicken potpie and chili. You can also find burgers, fries, entrée salads, and three daily entrees on our menu. The amount of choices we offer sets us apart from many communities. Coming soon are two wine bars that will also serve lattes, cappuccinos, and other coffee drinks, and a new café with sandwiches on the menu.”

Culinary Experiences - The Oaks at Whitaker Glen - Food
Food at The Oaks at Whitaker Glen

“We are transitioning to a Five Star dining experience,” says Terra Hunt, Food Services Director, The Oaks at Whitaker Glen. She continued, “That includes incorporating different ingredients like Swiss chard, patty pan squash, micro greens and other healthy foods into the menu. Comfort foods are available but reinvented like beef short ribs on a bed of Yukon Gold potatoes. For our Brazilian residents we have cultural dishes on the menu like Tambaqui fish with pineapple salsa.

Hunt says members like her exposition cooking like a recent pasta bar that allowed people to choose ingredients and watch the chef prepare the dish to their specifications. Hunt enjoys preparing quality food but feels the real reward is time spent with the people and getting their feedback. “They are honest and also really appreciative of our efforts and I learn a lot from talking to them,” says Hunt. Our members come from sophisticated backgrounds like a resident who is a former CIA agent so they expect high level cuisine.”

Carolina Meadows’ dining operation serves approximately 336,000 meals annually (not including catering) in a variety of venues across its large campus. You’ll find a dedicated team of more than 100 hospitality professionals that have experiences ranging from hotels, restaurants, country clubs, and large food retail operations.

“In the Club Center a formal white tablecloth setting is available for a more formal dining experience,” said Russell Neff, Executive Chef of Dining Services. “Baristas serve up espresso and house made pastries at The Bake Shop, and our Pub, Marketplace, and Café provide a wide range of options in a less formal setting. The Piedmont, our newest venue, serves Southern inspired cuisine, specializing in small plates and cocktails. You’ll also find extravagant holiday buffets throughout the year, with ice carved displays and a medley of everyone’s favorites tied in with the time of year that’s being celebrated.”

Special catering events are frequent with birthday celebrations for residents, ice cream socials, BBQ’s, private wine dinners and more.

Next time you are invited to eat lunch or dinner with a family member who is living in a retirement community, don’t hesitate. In the Triad and Triangle, the culinary landscape in these communities has never been better. Executive chefs are leading talented staffs in the kitchen to serve up creative dishes while using healthy and fresh ingredients. If you have never had a meal prepared by a James Beard award-winning, chef don’t worry, you will find greatness in this new culinary scene, and more than likely you will experience an entrée by one of North Carolina’s next nominated chefs.