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Dreams and nightmares of a former restaurant chef: Part Two

I often dreamt I was a tightrope walker working without a net, juggling numbers for budget reports on a tightrope strung between corporate headquarters and the Jolly Roger with an audience of 180 octogenarians complaining their grapefruits weren’t sectioned properly.

I was hired as executive chef for Kimball Farms Continuing Care Retirement Community in Lenox just after it had opened its doors for the first time to approximately a dozen residents in the middle of November 1989. In its original incarnation, it was planned to be home for approximately 180 residents in 150 independent-living apartments with a 39-bed skilled nursing facility in an attached wing to be opened in about five or six months.

It was euphemistically a “challenging job” establishing a dining service within a new and emerging senior-living concept at the time. When fully occupied, the dining service at Kimball Farms was analogous to running the kitchens and dining rooms of a hotel restaurant with a nursing home out of one kitchen. We provided waitstaff dining-room service, taking orders from menus that changed daily on the independent-living side while we served trays of food as elegantly as possible to the residents in the skilled-nursing unit. The menus were coordinated with the skilled-nursing unit’s dining service, including therapeutic diets determined by physician-ordered dietary restrictions adjusted to individual residents’ needs. It was health care meets — sometimes colliding with — restaurant dining.

It being a new senior-living concept at the time, there were very few models to learn from for such a blended dining service. We were left with having to often “innovate contemporaneously,” corporate-speak for “making it up as you go along.” Since I lived my life innovating contemporaneously, I was down with that; however I had no prior nursing home experience with the strict regulations only recently enacted by the federal government in 1987 under the inscrutably named Ombudsman Budget Reconciliation Act. Nursing home inspectors armed with these regulations were already striking fear throughout the industry.

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Having come from sweating blood as the executive chef at my family’s restaurant of 10 years on Cape Cod, the Captain Linnell House, the previous year and two hideous experiences at restaurants in the six months I’d been in the area, I had to make this work. I’d been so battered by my recent restaurant experiences that during orientation — when the human resources representative went over my benefits with me, which included health, dental, life and disability insurances and a generous earned time program combining paid vacation and sick time — I didn’t think, “Wow! This is great! I’ve never had any of these benefits before.” My thought was: “Ha! They put those benefits in a pot at the end of a rainbow.” I was that cynical. I was sure there had to be a catch. It turned out the only catch was surviving my first boss and Kimball Farms’ first executive director.

If you can think of the most unrealistically demanding, micromanaging, overbearing boss you’ve ever had and multiplied that person by five, that would have been the first executive director at Kimball Farms. Due to “excessive managerial turnover” — more corporate-speak for managers heading for the hills fleeing from a nutjob and some high-handed transgressions normally attributed to recent presidential cabinet secretaries — she and corporate management eventually agreed to part ways, but not before she left many of us scarred.

When I started, the kitchen had still not been completed, which left us prepping and cooking in one of the unsold apartments and serving in a makeshift dining room set up in another apartment down the hall. While adding 10 to 12 residents each week, we were serving 60 residents while cooking out of two apartments and using two others as makeshift dining rooms before the kitchen was completed and had gone through the necessary inspections. There was a lot of innovating contemporaneously going on during this time.

A week or so before Christmas, the first day we were able to use the kitchen, we were tasked with serving a holiday dinner for about 100 to corporate management, the board of directors and the residents. Much of that time was a blur so I don’t recall all the details, but I do remember the menu including prime rib with Yorkshire pudding. Prime rib was my suggestion as it was mostly universally appreciated and we would have so little time in the kitchen to prep. The completely unnecessary addition of Yorkshire pudding was my boss’ demand because she was fixated on everything English being elegant. It also achieved her goal of making all tasks as difficult as possible as, in her mind, the more difficult a task, the better it was. Since she strived for “exceeding expectations” (more corporate-speak), she had to make my accepted idea for prime rib as difficult as possible. The KISS philosophy of Keep It Simple Stupid was never on her radar.

I was sure I had some demonic kitchen spirit following me and shutting down ranges at the worst possible moment (see Part One of this series) when I found the ovens had inexplicably shut down as I checked on the prime ribs after about an hour. I couldn’t get the ovens relit, which left me to throw the roasting pans with the half-roasted prime ribs onto a cart and run down the hall to load them into the ovens in the apartments we had been using as our kitchens. While I was running down the hall pushing the cart loaded with prime rib in the commons area with my eyes as big as saucers, my boss stopped me. She didn’t wonder why I was running down the hall with half-roasted beef, she stopped me so she could admonish me for not having the beef covered while I was in the hallway. It was one of the first times, but certainly not the last, I snapped at her.

The problem turned out to be a loose connection between the gas line and the oven and was easily repairable, allowing the rest of the evening to proceed without any more major incidents.

Fast forward to Aug. 5, 1990, after I’d been promoted to director of dining services due, in part, to the incredible incompetence of my predecessor, when my boss came in and closed the door behind her. I’d come in on that Sunday so I could catch up on some paperwork with a minimum of interruptions, which was now shot to hell. Having been a working chef up until that point, having paperwork take up a good part of my day was still new to me and I was still spending a good amount of time working in the kitchen, so her appearance in my office was both disheartening and disturbing.

For her part, when she closed the door behind her, she had me right where she wanted me in her dreaded web of fear. I never knew what to expect from her, but if she closed the door behind her, it usually involved either a beating or an order to carry out some fantastical whim of hers. She dove right in and announced we were going to provide a picnic at Tanglewood for the yearly celebration of Tanglewood on Parade. I was still new to the area and had been to Tanglewood a couple of times but had no idea what Tanglewood on Parade was or when it occurred.

I asked about the details and she informed me the picnic was primarily a marketing event to include attendance by residents who wished to picnic with a group of marketing prospects on Tanglewood’s grounds while continuing to serve our dinner menu in the dining room for our remaining residents. At the time, while Kimball Farms was still in its first year of opening, the residents numbered about 120 but behind projected occupancy, meaning the executive director and the marketing staff were under a great deal of pressure from corporate headquarters to increase occupancy. Since stuff slides downhill, dining services were always the first place for the searchlight to land when scanning for ways to relieve the pressure.

While at my family’s restaurant on Cape Cod, I’d catered hundreds of weddings and functions, so my initial uneasiness with what she’d described lay in the fact we had never done any offsite catering at Kimball Farms and we were still in our opening phases, with new staff having to adjust to serving more residents all the time.

As occupancy grew, increasing from, say, 80 to 90 residents may not have been much of an issue, but somehow, increasing just 10 more to 100 suddenly and unexpectedly required some dramatic adjustments. We were constantly adjusting responsibilities, tightening systems and adding staff as the budget allowed. Meanwhile, the skilled nursing unit had opened, adding another dimension for us to learn, as almost none of us had any prior nursing home experience. Every day there would be several new “challenges,” which we were forbidden to refer to as “problems” within earshot of my boss. Nonetheless, I had confidence that, given time to plan, we could make a picnic at Tanglewood work. I asked her when the event was scheduled, and she informed me it was Tuesday.

“WHAT!” my mind screamed, as I knew if I screamed it out loud, it would only lead to a beating. So, I asked as calmly as I could if she really meant Tuesday, as in the day after tomorrow Tuesday. She fixed her icy blue expressionless eyes on me, answered in the affirmative and waited for my response. She did seem to enjoy watching me squirm. It never occurred to her it might have helped if the marketing plan had included this event at least a month or two in advance.

We were able to pull it together because we had to, and I was determined to not let her break me. Anybody who has been in dining services will tell you no one really understands how it works unless you’ve worked in it. Most people who have been in dining services know exactly what I mean when I describe it as a three-ring circus primarily staffed by pirates. Let’s just say when I was at Kimball Farms, I often dreamt I was a tightrope walker working without a net, juggling numbers for budget reports on a tightrope strung between corporate headquarters and the Jolly Roger with an audience of 180 octogenarians complaining their grapefruits weren’t sectioned properly. The job required the ability to access several distinct personalities at any given time, sometimes juxtaposing Organization Man with Long John Silver within minutes of each other. You know, straighten my tie and then, “Aaarrrggh!”

All in all, though, I worked with some great people and was able to establish relationships with some wonderful residents who had some incredibly interesting stories that helped make it the best job I’d ever had. In addition, working in long-term care does bring home the valuable life lesson we’re really only here for a short time.

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Our first picnic at Tanglewood on Parade was such a success, it became an annual event for the 11 years I held the position. It evolved over the years, becoming less of a marketing event and more of an activity for the residents. During the 1990s, Tanglewood was considerably more formal than it has been recently. It was not uncommon to see quite a few groups setting up their picnics on the lawn with silver utensils and candelabras. So, it was almost inevitable someone in one of our management meetings brought up the grand idea of my donning a tuxedo for that extra dash of elegance while running our show at Tanglewood. I was the only dissenting vote, so it was written so it was done.

At the time, Tanglewood on Parade was always held on the first Tuesday of August, which always seemed to be the hottest and most humid day of the year. We had to hustle to setup for the 100 or so residents as Tanglewood would only allow two of us to enter the grounds before the gates opened at 2 p.m.

Being early, I would observe a little vignette I always found amusing. There would be 40 or so patrons packed together at the main gate before the gates opened. Once the gates opened, they would literally sprint out of the gate like harness racing horses, dragging their chairs and picnic supplies in wagons across the lawn in the same way trotters pulled their sulkies not far away at Saratoga Race Track. Once they crossed their personal finish line establishing their 8-by-8 bit of turf on “their spot,” they would appear as dots spread out on the acres and acres of Tanglewood’s beautifully manicured lawn. Tanglewood’s grounds would eventually hold over 10,000 patrons for the event packed together on the lawn, swallowing the original 40 whole.

After the two of us hauled coolers, banquet tables and everything we needed for service from the trucks we’d loaded at Kimball Farms, we would drape buffet tables, position coolers and serving utensils in our allotted picnic area under the trees by the student gate in anticipation of the first group of residents’ arrival at 4:30 p.m. After setting up, I would be pouring sweat and retire to a bathroom stall where I would towel myself off, apply lashings of deodorant and continue to towel myself off as I changed into my tuxedo. No one should ever have to change into a tuxedo in a hot, cramped bathroom stall. My ability to sweat is legendary and I would emerge from the sauna-like bathroom stall red-faced and sweating even more profusely than when I went in. A vision of cool elegance I was not. I was the living embodiment of attempting to turn a pig’s ear into a silk purse indeed.

Once the rest of the staff arrived, I could find a place to cool down and stop sweating so I was acceptable to help serve food and drinks. Since the male orchestra members all wear tuxedos, I was never sure if people picnicking on the grounds wondered which instrument I played and why a Boston Symphony Orchestra musician was serving food to a large group of elderly patrons. Meanwhile, the staff and I would have to be on constant alert to intercept barbarians marauding our perimeter who, for God knows what reason, decided it must be a free buffet open to the public. Ants at a picnic had nothing on those pesky and relentless freeloaders.

After everyone had been fed, it never ceased to amaze me when three-quarters of our residents would get back on the bus and return to Kimball Farms before the concert started. It was at this point, as we were cleaning up, that my favorite part of the event occurred. We would always have huge bunches of balloons on the table with our candelabra and our taxidermy pheasant mascot facing the crowd on the lawn. Our residents were always appreciative, but the best part was when I would take the balloons out into the crowd and start handing them out to the kids. It made all the stress and struggle, including having to wear a tuxedo on a 90-degree humid summer’s day, worthwhile to see the delight on their faces.