So last week, I was at an Cub Scout event (they made cars out of carboard boxes and raced them around the parking lot-very cute!), and one of the other parents asked me how work was going. I said it was crazy but fun at the moment, and she asked "Why? Don't you work at a retirement place? What's so crazy?" I admit at first I was kind of annoyed by the question, but then I want home and thought about it.
Why isn't this a simple boring senior living kitchen job? What makes it both stressful and exciting? I thought about the things that I had been doing last week; opening the Hive Market, writing a blog entry, checking on five beehives, making a batch of Pale Ale, planning a tasting menu with four Super Tuscan wines, pulling weeds from the herb garden. I realized that all of them are things that we began here in Highlands Ranch and are fairly unique to Senior Living, and are things that I am really proud of. In addition to all these fun things we are still running three meals a day in four separate dining rooms, lunch in two employee cafeterias, various meetings, parties, holidays, and special events. In less than six months, I will celebrate my twentieth year with Vi which made me start to think about how we got here.
From the very beginning, we asked ourselves is "What do we do that the competition doesn’t?" I mean, obviously I think we have the best food of any senior living resort in the country, but I bet the chef at Windcrest thinks she does, and the same goes for Holly Creek or any chef worth their salt. No, not every meal is perfect, and there will always be mistakes that takes good culinary management to fix, but I feel very confident in our food, our menus, our staff as compared to any Senior Living resort in the country.
The biggest realization I have had over the years though that good food is nothing to brag about. That's hard for a chef to admit but let me explain. If you aspire to the title of chef, good food should be a given-it's just the price of admission. Everyone has good food- until they don't -and any chef's reputation is only as good as the last meal served. The big question in my mind is what we have that others don’t. What do we do here that no one else even comes close to? What exactly makes Vi at Highlands Ranch the best? I wrote this article to maybe help explain what I think we do best and what makes vi at Highlands Ranch different and quite frankly better than all our competition.
Composed ever changing menus; So, our menus are different from other Senior living resorts-even within this company. Our menu sare compose, meaning that when I plan the Sesame crusted Sea Bass, I add the Soy butter for umami, Ginger snow peas for texture, and the Sticky rice cake to balance the richness of the fish. Sure residents can change what they want but the dish was created as a whole not individual parts. We create menus weekly right here on property based on what's in season, resident requests, chef inspiration or whatever seems like our residents would want to order. The traditional senior living menu uses what we call a cycle menu. The chef creates a list of entrees, side dishes, and desserts that the customer picks and chooses from. The cycle is usually six weeks long and repeats at least once before the next cycle begins. These menus are easy for the chef, food is cooked in large batches, and service is quick and efficient. The problem is that it’s institutional, somewhat boring as well as wasteful.
When we opened Vi at Highlands Ranch, we wanted the menus to reflect what is in season, what our residents want, and yes-to show off a bit. Our customers are affluent and well-traveled, so I want it to be like a resort here. Our food is mostly cooked to order, with many entrees, matching sides, and most importantly reflecting resident tastes and requests quickly. There’s no input from the home office, no corporate recipes. If a resident wishes we would serve lamb more often, I can get that on the menu by Monday. If an idea does not go over well, we simply forget it and move on. It allows me and the Sous Chefs to be creative and engaged, and most importantly it allows us to interact more with our residents and make changes quickly based on feedback. We want to be partners with the residents, create and celebrate together.
Access to the Chef; The Culinary Corner meeting is held every Monday at 10 am in the Dad Clark bar. In the beginning, it was just a simple way to make sure that residents understood the menu but of course it is more than that. If you want to compliment or complain, here I am. If you have questions, suggestions, you know where to go. If you want to know why we do things one way instead of another, this is the place to ask. I don’t really hold back and I sometimes share too much, but I think if the residents and staff are going to be partners in creating something special this is the best place to start. We joke about failures, get excited about ideas, banter over conflicting resident tastes. Most of the new menu ideas come from these meetings, and I think that when residents know me better, they feel more comfortable being honest bout what they like and don’t like. I really enjoy these meetings and it takes away some of the hesitation people might feel to offer constructive criticism.
Education; The Sip and Savor program here at Vi is our most popular offering, and my personal favorite. It has evolved over the years, but at it’s simplest it is an offering of four wines, spirits or beers with food to match and an open discussion of the interaction of flavors. We have a lot of fun, sometimes too much. For my part, I have learned more about different wines, their histories, and how they work with food better than I ever expected. The feedback I get from residents is the biggest part of this, and I get really excited when a discussion of Spanish Rioja or California Zinfandel spurs a resident to share their own experiences with us. Food and Wine are part of our history and our soul, and should be celebrated as such. Again, this program is something we work on together and I am always looking for ideas.
Communication; This blog started as a newsletter years ago called The Grapevine, but I had trouble keeping it in print, and it wasted a ton of paper. We started the Vi Hive in 2021 and it was an overnight success. It gives us yet another avenue of communication, and for me it sometimes helps to put my thoughts on paper (or screen ) to organize them. We have around 150 recipients of the blog, and it gives us a better way to communicate upcoming events, menu descriptions, special ingredients or just to have fun together. We also have about 25 YouTube videos with cooking demonstrations, bee keeping and more. The videos are all available on the blog homepage or check them out here ( insert link ). We have created a Facebook site as well as Instagram to keep even more communication with residents and allow them to share with their families and friends. If you like our food tell someone, if you like an article please share that as well.
Resident collaboration; Gardening has always been a passion of mine. In my own home garden, herbs play a huge part, even if the mint has taken over part of my lawn and the hops come back every year whether I want them or not. Here at work, the garden was built to make easy access to fresh organic ingredients close to the kitchen. We go through tons of basil and parsley, and resident have gifted us sage, tarragon, and rosemary that come back every year. Resident involvement has kept the garden weeded and tidy when I am too busy to keep up. Everything in the gardens is edible and open to residents, with lots of focus on pollinator friendly plantings such as Bee balm, marigolds, and lemon verbena. Not surprisingly, many residents are more successful gardeners than I am, and I have benefited greatly from their advice and even intervention.
More Collaboration; Lots of gardening eventually leads to bees. Around five years ago, we had a lackluster growing season, and I realized that I was seeing fewer and fewer pollinators in our gardens. The bees were an experiment that I really wasn’t sure would work, but the response has been overwhelming. We started with one hive in 2018 and got about two gallons of honey. Since then the number of beehives has varied, and our gardens are always full of life. The honey is used in cooking, brewing, and of course features largely in the Farmer’s Market with the residents. I think our honey is the best in Colorado, but of course my feelings may be biased. We use mostly Italian Bees known for their gentle nature, and while I get stung dozens of times a season, I really like those hardworking ladies and am always glad to see them. You can see videos of the bees here (insert link).
Even More; Talking with residents at a beer tasting event led to an idea; could we just make and enjoy our own beer? I can't think of any other senior living community in Colorado that makes beer, much less collaborating with residents and staff. After all Colorado already produces the best beer in the country, and why not Mead and Cider? We have our own gardens, we have lots of honey, and a full working kitchen. After a few fits and starts we started making our own beers on a regular basis last spring, and man has it been a success. Residents take part when and where they can, and we now have a space to brew indoors. While I don’t claim any of it to be award winning, for our purposes it has been a great success. By my count we have done about fifteen to twenty beers since then, and the time spent making, discussing and of course drinking the beer has been so much fun.
Fun; Man do we have fun. I mean, not every event is a laugh a minute but working with Angie and Hannah in Lifestyle makes all our events more fun and gives more depth to what might just be a simple food and beverage affair.
The Farmer's market, the Oktoberfest, The Titanic Dinner, the Sounds of Summer Dinner all owe their success to collaboration with our friends in other departments. We are just getting started really, Our staff is constantly coming up with ideas that may or may not work but we are willing to try. One of the hardest things for chefs to learn is how to relax and have fun. We are learning more every day, and though it may feel crazy and out of control at times, I can't imagine doing anything else. Thank you all for allowing us to explore, take chances, make mistakes and especially have fun with you. I really hope that if you take nothing else from this that you remember my thanks and appreciation for what we have all built together and what we are going to do in the future.