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Reinvesting in communities means looking at culinary in a whole new way accent

June 27, 2024 | By

sam kolner-1July 16 is National Personal Chef Day. And while chefs in WesleyLife's Communities for Healthy Living can't be described as personal chefs, they customize menus to satisfy so many palates that their jobs are akin to personal service for hundreds of people on any given day.

Sam Kolner, director of dining services at Wesley on Grand — one of WesleyLife's most populous communities, and one that underwent a multi-million-dollar redevelopment the past few years — has spent a great deal of time thinking about the importance of customization. The campus's redevelopment gave him the opportunity to reevaluate Wesley on Grand's culinary reality versus its wants and needs, and he likes where things are headed.

Meat-and-potatoes versus Food Network expectations

"The meat-and-potato generation is giving way to the next wave, including boomers with more advanced culinary expectations," Sam says of the menu-related juxtapositions he and his team face daily. "In a world of celebrity chefs and the Food Network, our customers expect more culinarily advanced presentations with a focus on healthier diets.

"We're seeing a move toward more vegetarian and plant-based options and more world flavors. Whereas in the past, residents would have been scared to try something like quinoa, they are now requesting more than just American foods. Chefs who serve older adults need to be able to expand beyond and incorporate Asian, Hispanic, and Mediterranean flavors and foods."

Mediterranean menu items are a special focus at WesleyLife because of the organization's health-and-well-being focus, Sam explains. In the Blue Zones, areas of the world where people typically live much longer than average, Mediterranean diets are a staple. 

"The health benefits of Mediterranean and Asian diets, especially, mean it makes sense for us to explore how to work these into our menus," Sam says. "We try to do that with a focus on choice. An unfamiliar Mediterranean option won't be the only option, but unlike in the past, it will be an option." 

All about choice

If he had to narrow down his overarching culinary strategy, Sam says it would in fact come down to the scenario above: introducing different dishes, but offering them as options.

"We still offer comfort foods and probably always will; we want people to be able to count on meatloaf or mac-and-cheese, because those are foods that taste and feel good to people, and residents are absolutely entitled to like what they like and want what they want," Sam says. "But those options are also stereotypical to senior living, and we are certainly much more than senior living here at WesleyLife."

Sam says education is a key element of involving people in foods that are not familiar to them.

"If we have an item on the menu, for example, that may not be a staple for most people — say, couscous — I'll work with our wellness team to produce something that tells people about the item and how it can enhance their health," he says. "We have a lot of health-conscious people here who will always be willing to give things a try."

Secret chicken salad ... and bar food

Sam says a number of new and different items have proven popular, but the most-requested menu items throughout Wesley on Grand are house-made chicken salad (with a secret ingredient!) and a build-your-own cheeseburger, with opinions such as a vegetable patty, assorted vegetables, and assorted cheeses. A newer item that was a "miss" — and Sam is still not sure why — was a shrimp taco. 

"It was really good," he muses. "I loved it. Other people loved it. Maybe we'll try it again one day." 

Incidentally, "giving things a try" is certainly no problem in a community with three restaurants. Like most WesleyLife campuses, Wesley on Grand is home to a variety of dining options; theirs are Sante, a bistro with a diverse menu, daily specials, grab-and-go-options, and a self-serve kiosk; Vita, a fine-dining establishment; and the Chamberlain Pub, which serves small plates and — in Sam's words — "really delicious bar food."

"We truly have something for everyone, and that's always a great surprise when I interview someone for a culinary role here and they come in with preconceived ideas about senior living," Sam says. "Food is a great way to demolish stereotypes, and you can believe we will keep doing that."

Damon Buskohl, executive director at Wesley on Grand, says he appreciates all Sam's efforts — not only to conceive creative menus and produce delicious food, but to help dispel the various tropes around communities for older adults.

"I'll see people who don't live here but come in to dine at Vita, and they'll say, 'I can't believe you can have food like this in a senior living community!'" Damon says. "And I'll tell them: 'Yes, and if you like our food, wait till you see what else we can do!'"

Want to learn even more about culinary adventures at Wesley on Grand? Meet their robot. 


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