During more than a decade of food writing, I’ve had the pleasure of judging a number of notable food contests, including the Gilroy Garlic Cook-Off, the Castroville Artichoke Festival Cook-Off, the short-lived “Food Fight” TV show competition, and of course, the Pillsbury Bake-Off.
So when I told my friends that I had been asked recently to judge a cook-off at a San Jose nursing home, I got more than a few odd looks.
But I have a soft spot for the work nursing homes do, as my late Mom spent her last weeks in one. I’m familiar with the challenges these facilities face, given the dietary and budgetary constraints they must work with.
So I was intrigued when Cindy Dahl, a registered dietitian with Plum Healthcare Group and a former San Diego restaurateur, asked me to be on the judging panel for the “Top Plum Chef” competition. Cooks from Plum Healthcare Group’s 16 California facilities would battle by cooking a specific dish. The winners advance to the next round, where they cook another specific dish. The two finalists then will square off in a cook-off in San Diego for a chance to win $500, a set of knives, a plaque, and bragging rights.
I was to be a judge, along with Dahl, two nursing home residents, and a family member of a resident. Our task was to choose which cook in this first round made the best chicken Marsala with garlic mashed potatoes. Would it be Luis Aguilar of the White Blossom Care Center in San Jose? Or Rowena Cortez of the Vasona Creek Healthcare Center in Los Gatos?
Plum Healthcare’s directive is to make its food less institutional and more palatable, especially for a clientele in California that cares a lot about good food. For the past year, its 153-bed White Blossom Care Center, in particular, has worked hard to develop a new type of food program.
They have instituted a “bistro”-style program at lunch. Tables in the dining room are draped in cloth, with matching napkins and real silverware. The dining staff wears white shirts with bow ties. Residents get actual menus to order. Those whose diets allow for it can even enjoy a little wine. Those on more restrictive diets sip grape juice in glass goblets.
Menu items have included baked ham with sweet mustard sauce, Jamaican Jerk chicken with sofrito rice, and baked pork chop with red wine sauce. No cafeteria trays here. The food is served on real plates.
“Our residents can’t go to a restaurant, so we want to bring the restaurant to them,” says Michael Collins, White Blossom’s director of nursing.
The cooking challenge was created to inspire the cooks to be more imaginative with their dishes. Of course, they still have to be mindful of fat and sodium. “But they can add garlic, fresh basil, fresh parsley to a dish,” says Dahl. “There’s no reason they can’t use wine in a dish, either.”
One big benefit to the improved food is that residents, some of whom have trouble keeping their weight up, now eat more. And even with this new, improved dining program, food costs have not increased for the most part, Dahl says.
One by one, the two chicken Marsala dishes were brought out for tasting as staff members from each facility whooped and hollered with encouragement and support. We judges tasted blind, not knowing which cook made which dish.
Although each chef used almost the exact same ingredients, the presentations were vastly different. Plate #1 was much fancier, with the mashed potatoes piped onto the plate and the chicken rolled up around a surprising filling of goat cheese, then sliced prettily on the plate. Plate #2 was more homey looking with thick mashed potatoes mounded on the plate alongside a half breast of chicken covered in sauce.
Plate #1 had real flair. Plate #2 had true flavor; you could taste not only the garlic in the thick, mashed potatoes, but the lovely Marsala in the sauce.
In the end, by a close margin, the winner was plate #1, made by Cortez. She will go on to compete in the next round.
Who knew nursing home food could be so tasty?