Food’s senior moment: Retirement homes serving upscale meals

The crystal chandeliers gleam, the women’s jewels sparkle, and the red roses in the center of each white-linen-topped table give off a perfume not unlike what indulgence might smell like.

“Hello, darling,” Chef Christophe Pellier greets diners as he works the room in his chef’s coat. “Hello. hello.hello.”

Soup of the day is lobster bisque, the salad mixed greens with artichoke hearts, Kalamata olives and roasted red peppers. Entrees include osso buco, chicken Milanese and pan-seared scallops, with roasted rosemary potatoes and ratatouille.

“Wine?” black-clad servers ask as they navigate from group to group.

Welcome to dinner at The Palace at Coral Gables, a luxury retirement community whose administration believes that aging should never mean an end to enjoying the finer things in life - exceptional food among them.

“Residents come here expecting to have a unique dining experience,” said Josh Cabrera, executive director of The Palace. “Food has always been a big part of socialization.”

So much so, in fact, that about 65 percent of the community’s 130 employees work in the food service department and many residents spend their afternoons at the daily happy hour, listening to live music before moving on to dinner in a room full of opulent touches.

“The residents are accustomed to a certain level of service and dining,” added Pellier, who has worked at several five-star restaurants around the globe. “They’re well-traveled, well-educated, and they certainly know what they like.”

Trending up

The Palace is not alone in its efforts to deliver upscale food that also meets the dietary restrictions of older adults. Around South Florida and the rest of the country, institutional food - mushy meatloaf and canned peas - is passé at senior communities. Micro greens, locally sourced produce and made-from-scratch entrees are hot, hot, hot. It’s a trend that mirrors the general population’s fascination with food. Regardless of age, eating has become as much a cultural experience as a source of nutrition.

“These are savvy people,” said Stephanie Braudrick, a regional manager for A Place for Mom, a for-profit senior care referral service based in Seattle. “They want not only high-quality food but also high-quality service. They’re used to the concierge touch.”

Nancy Stein, who founded Seniority Matters, a Miami-based service that helps find caregiving solutions in the three-county area, agrees. Many of her clients - and their baby-boomer children - are interested in communities with an assortment of amenities. “Food is a great hook,” she added. “People want choices and quality.”

What’s more, dining options are of particular importance because “there’s a social aspect to food. It’s how people socialize and come together.”

Happening everywhere

Changes in food-prep are happening in the kitchens of more modest retirement communities, too. At The Floridean Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, which has been in operation for 70 years in Little Havana, changing demographics have translated into more typical Latin fare, but with a twist. Chef Carlos Otiniano likes to introduce residents to Italian, Greek and other international dishes.

For example, lunch one day included chicken with peach sauce (flavored with thyme and white wine), a broiled tomato (sprinkled with extra virgin oil, oregano, garlic and topped with mozzarella and parsley) and couscous. Otiniano acknowledges that planning and preparing meals for people in their 80s was “a learning process” after running restaurants, including a family-owned four-star in San Juan, where heavy sauces were the norm.

“I’ve learned that you don’t have to sacrifice the palate for it to be healthy,” he added.

Back at The Palace, chef Pellier is watching over the kitchen staff as they slice and serve tiramisu. In the dining room, Bernice Dubrow is enjoying her pan-seared scallops. She moved here from Venice at her daughter’s urging and her initial reluctance has given way to unabashed enthusiasm.

“It’s like going to a fine-dining restaurant every night,” she said. “The servers know your name and know what you like.”

Pellier said that feeling of welcome is part of the experience.

“As a chef you want the food to be great of course,” he said. “But I want more. I want them to enjoy the ambiance, the people, the place. I want them to leave, saying, ‘Boy, that was a great night!’ “