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Chef-Driven Approach to the Menu

Client-driven dining delivers top results in Canada.

When your most recent dining-satisfaction scores top 95%, you might be tempted to coast awhile. But no one’s resting on their laurels at Shannex, a family-owned company offering retirement living, long-term care and in-home care services across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Ontario. Director of Culinary Services Dana Schiefer and his crew cooked up a way to create even more excitement about the dining program; in the process, they positioned Shannex as an employer of choice for future culinary graduates.

“We hosted the first-ever Shannex Top Chef Culinary Competition in 2015,” Schiefer says. “We have a lot of talented chefs who work for the company and we thought this would be a good way to showcase their skills. Plus, it gives us an opportunity to work together and learn from each other.”

Shannex operates 11 Parkland Retirement Living Communities, each with its own Red Seal-trained executive chef. In June 2015, seven of them competed in the first round of this contest, modeled after the popular reality-television series. Chefs prepared an appetizer and dessert of their choice and were tasked with creating an entrée from four mystery ingredients—which turned out to be Hawaiian red snapper, Asian pear, a whole coconut and radishes.

A panel of celebrity guest judges advanced four chefs to the final round of the competition in December. Many recipes from both rounds were incorporated into menus and printed in
the company magazine. 

Showing off kitchen spaces

Round one of the competition was held at the Shannex Culinary Centre, a state-of-the-art food preparation and distribution facility that  supplies the company’s 18 long-term care communities. Round two took place at Parkland at the Lakes Retirement-Living Community in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Clients, prospective clients and staff, as well as instructors and students from the local culinary school, were invited to attend both events. “We wanted them to see that this is truly a sophisticated dining operation,” says Heather Hanson, Director of Communications and Community Affairs at Shannex. “That’s especially important for culinary students who don’t typically think of healthcare as a first career choice.”

Outreach to budding chefs and dietitians is a key aspect of the culinary program. “Dana invites classes from local universities to come in and see what we do here,” Hanson explains. “We have about 100 to 125 students go through our kitchens each year and many of them do internships. We show them that this kind of foodservice is not what they think.”

That’s essential to ensuring a steady stream of trained culinary personnel for an operation that serves food in 45 buildings and is always expanding. It’s also critical to maintaining the organization’s high culinary standards. 

Putting clients first

Those standards are driven by Shannex’s philosophy of service, which is based on the values of placing clients first, promoting independence, treating with dignity, respecting choices and recognizing each client as an individual. This service culture is reinforced by the word “clients” instead of “residents.” 

Client-driven dining starts with eliciting individual dietary requirements and preferences before the first meal is served. It extends to restaurant-style service offering a choice of seven weekly specials, all impeccably prepared and presented in elegant dining rooms. And it encompasses a willingness to go “off the menu” as often as needed.

“I was on the line with a chef at 4 p.m. and he got a request for four scallops seared on one side, three shrimp and 10 French fries—none of which was on the menu,” Schiefer says. “But he did it.” 

“We’re all about fresh and local,” Schiefer adds. “About 40% of our menu is sourced locally. That goes up in the summer when we have access to more produce. Our clients want to know where their food is coming from.”

Highlighting food preparation

Clients and family members are invited to tour the Culinary Centre to observe chefs and staffers readying selections that will be transported to long-term care kitchens for final cooking. “Even something as simple as beef stew is assembled here,” Schiefer says. “It allows us greater consistency and quality control.”

The same is true of a new bakery operation at the Culinary Centre. Opened in November 2015, it enables Shannex to deliver homemade flavour on a grand scale. “The other day we made 3,000 jamdrop cookies,” Schiefer says.Baked goods are the only things not prepared on-site in retirement-living communities. 

The Top Chef competition was so successful that it was quickly slated for an encore. “It was great for our staff and our clients and our future,” Schiefer says.

Ready, set, compete. Eight rules for staging your own culinary competition:

  1. Involve residents as judges,cheerleaders and/or spectators.
  2. Select ingredients that allow contestants to be creative.
  3. Choose judges that combine local celebrity with some level of food knowledge or interest.
  4. Give contestants plenty of notice.
  5. Publicize the event to build internal excitement and court external publicity.
  6. Involve your local culinary school in some fashion.
  7. Instruct contestants to meet dietary, nutrition, and cost guidelines so dishes can be added to the menu.
  8. Have fun!
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