As Cindy Dahl, head of quality nutritional services for Plum Healthcare, San Diego, traveled to each of her company’s 18 facilities to educate them about culture change in 2007, she took the opportunity to assess the kitchen and dining programs.

What she found were “very institutional” kitchens with small refrigerators and freezers, very large store rooms for canned goods, and cooking utensils that were of limited quantity and quality.

“Basically,” she says, “the residents were getting just the kind of food we allowed the cooks to serve.”

That’s when Dahl came up with an idea to create a culinary competition inspired by television’s “Top Chef.” She thought it would be an excellent way to introduce the cooks to new methods of cooking and give them ideas for new recipes.

“The daily job of the cook was very consistent,” she says. “It’s the same menu, same foods, different day.”
Dahl, who is also a nutritionist, licensed nursing home administrator, and former restaurateur, was acutely aware of the negative impact that bland, tasteless, and predictable meals can have on residents. And the sight of the cooks caught in a daily routine that didn’t allow innovation or creativity saddened her.

So, as she progressed with her plan she did several things to ensure that the facilities had adequate support. “I made sure they had the right equipment, and I sent them training videos on how to make purees,” she says.
Dahl also sent the chefs to cooking school in 2008 in preparation for the Top Plum Chef event. She and a well-known local chef created cooking classes that addressed the specific needs of skilled nursing facility residents.

More Challenges Crop Up

Other contests, such as Genesis’ Culinary Competition, Cura’s Chefs Challenge, and Brookdale’s Ultimate Chef America, have all been produced in the past several years, and all were inspired either by “Top Chef” or “Iron Chef America.”
The goal of Genesis’ Culinary Competition was to encourage food service staff to “continually improve the quality and presentation” of their food.
In order to compete, the company’s nursing and assisted living facilities were encouraged to submit their “very best recipes” to the companywide cook-off. Facility chefs competed with each other and were judged on originality; menu criteria; taste; use of textures, colors, and plate presentation, including garnish; appropriateness for patient population; and use of readily available ingredients.
Three finalists were chosen from each of Genesis’ regions, and three regional winners competed for one grand prize. The winning teams from Perring Parkway, Baltimore; Madison Center, Matawan, N.J.; and Heritage Hall North, Agawan, Mass., wooed the judges with stuffed chicken with caramelized sweet potatoes and peach soufflé, pretzel-coated chicken with baked sweet potato wedges and roasted asparagus, and savory sausage and cheese grit bake with fried egg in a bird nest.
Chefs from Brookdale Senior Living showcased their culinary talents to compete for the Ultimate Chef America title. Two teams of four dining service staff members from the company’s senior living communities competed to create the best healthy cooking for seniors.
Perhaps the most glitzy among the competitions, the Ultimate Chef America tour also featured gourmet food tastings, wine and seasoning seminars, and a “Food for the Soul” presentation by Medical Director Kevin O’Neil, MD.
“Food-inspired art” by Brookdale residents was available through the event’s silent auction, with all proceeds benefiting the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation. Gibbons herself took part in judging the chefs’ creations, which included Asian-style grilled scallops with somen noodle salad and cilantro vinaigrette and silky white and dark chocolate creme with raspberry Chambord coulis.

Residents Cheer Chefs On

Another “Top Chef” look-alike was Cura’s Chefs Challenge at the Fahrney-Keedy Home & Village in Boonsboro, Md. Unlike the other competitions, residents of the senior living community competed alongside Cura’s executive chefs, using a secret ingredient in each course.
Genesis’ Culinary Competition proved to be a very popular ticket. As the competitors were narrowed down, the events, which took place in three different cities between January and March this year, drew crowds from the chefs’ nursing centers. Staff and residents cheered them on with signs, festive hats, pins, and T-shirts.