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Assisted-living communities step up their culinary game for seniors

The culinary experience at local senior assisted-living communities would appear to have reached new heights when some begin providing samples of their cuisine at food events.

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George Gonzales, executive director of Newport Terrace Senior Living in Newport Beach, served a poke and seaweed salad trio from an elaborate tropical display during the Pacific Wine & Food Classic in August at the Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort.

Gonzales, who studied at the San Francisco Culinary Academy, said many senior communities have taken food service to the next level.

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A growing interest in food and healthier lifestyles has led to a changing gastronomic culture encompassing all ages, from infants to senior citizens.

Gone are the days of limited choices of bland food for seniors in assisted-living residences. Today, chefs prepare gourmet dishes with a creative flair. Residents at some places have the option of ordering daily specials or offerings from extensive everyday menus.

Andre Fournier, who trained at Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec in Montreal, worked in the restaurant industry for about 25 years before taking on the role of executive chef at Newport Terrace.

“I came from the hotel and restaurant business,” he said. “I was a chef at Don the Beachcomber, a manager of the Queen Mary Chelsea seafood restaurant, opened a DoubleTree hotel and was the vice president of operations on a train.

“The blessing is to go home at night and know you did something good for the elderly. … This has a meaning, it comes from the heart. My cup is full of joy every night.”

Less than a mile away at Newport Plaza, Pablo Soria arrived about four months ago as director of culinary services.

He also began his career in the restaurant business, working at his brother’s pizzeria in Dana Point.

Upon his arrival from Golden Creek in Irvine — which like the Newport communities is managed by Atria Senior Living — residents of Newport Plaza were concerned about the changes to the menu. But after he talked with them, they seemed to appreciate the quality of the food, he said.

Chef Tabitha Nevers said she loves getting to know the people at Newport Plaza.

“Unlike working in a restaurant, it’s about meeting their needs and special requests and getting to know them,” she said. “I love the residents — they are incredible.”

Resident Chris Collins, who considers himself the community’s food ambassador, delivers residents’ comments — good and bad — to the food committee.

“The way Tabitha cooks with herbs and spices to create dishes, I believe she is a gourmet cook and we’re lucky to have her,” Collins said.

Kathleen Olson, executive director of Crown Cove, an upscale boutique-style senior community in Corona del Mar, said she also has seen food service elevated, especially in the past two years.

Olson said demographics play a role in food differences among communities.

“The area we’re in, residents are interested in healthier food; many have traveled and experienced a higher level of dining and expect that [here],” she said. “They don’t want casseroles.”

Crown Cove head chef Daniel Perez has always worked in the assisted-living environment, in which staff helps residents with things such as home maintenance, medication management, diet monitoring, bathing, dressing and grooming.

“I love working with seniors, and for some, it’s the end of their journey and I want to make them as happy as possible,“ he said. “Food plays a huge role — the interaction, the family bringing everyone closer together — and it … gives me joy when families come and eat here instead of going out.”

Such amenities and services come at a price. Apartments at Crown Cove range from $5,000 to $8,000 a month. At Newport Plaza, a studio goes for $3,965, a one-bedroom for $5,955 and a two-bedroom for $7,275.

Rates at Newport Terrace range from $3,250 a month for a studio to more than $5,000 for a one-bedroom unit.

Meanwhile, at Pacifica Senior Living in Costa Mesa, which has more set menus, rent is $3,900 for a shared unit and $6,200 for a private one.

When family members have a meal at Crown Cove, they get firsthand knowledge that their loved ones are in good hands, Perez said. “Sunday brunch plays a big role in sampling what we make during the week,” he said.

Perez said Crown Cove, a property of Meridian Senior Living, works to accommodate everyone’s dietary needs and tastes, along with keeping up with the food industry’s growing transition from processed items to fresher and healthier alternatives — for example, substituting cauliflower rice for starch-laden regular rice.

The community’s marketing director, Marion Miele, said food preparation is a major reason seniors move to an assisted-living community as they become less independent.

“Chef Daniel takes a lot of pride in his dishes to ensure healthy dining by incorporating grilled salmon and more fish and preparing soup daily from scratch,” Miele said. “As a way to make their experience here as nice as possible, for example, he brings in special cheese and bread just for a French family who is accustomed to having their daily cheese and bread.”

Newport Terrace, Newport Plaza and Crown Cove take residents’ feedback and as a result have added bistros that provide fresh fruit and beverages throughout the day, including an espresso machine.

At Crown Cove, even beer and wine are available, and champagne is served during the last Sunday brunch of each month.

Susan Hoffman is a contributor to Times Community News.

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