A Cook to Be Thankful For

FoodService Director magazine has published a profile of surprising emotional depth, particularly for a trade publication with such a strikingly prosaic name. Writer Paul King documents a new chef’s arrival at the 134-resident Alzheimer’s Resource Center in Plantsville, Connecticut, where most residents suffer from some form of dementia.

Chef Harry Parlee’s first priority: restoring some warmth and dignity to a sometimes grim institutional setting. His opening move was scrapping cold sandwiches for dinner. Instead, he introduced a new hot-entrée program that utilizes fresh meat and vegetables, and numerous from-scratch items.

‘The people who come in here can’t do many of the things they use to do, like drive a car,’ says Parlee, in explaining his reasons for wanting to improve the quality of the food. ‘They used to be carpenters, and they can’t work with wood. They used to fly fish, and they can’t go fly fishing any more. The only thing they feel they have any control over is food.’ Parlee preaches a very simple philosophy to his staff: ‘How would you like to treat this person if this were your grandparent?’

An emphasis on “action stations” where chefs prepare food in front of residents also helps elevate the experience and facilitate social interaction.

Parlee introduced an “aromatherapy” element to his cooking program as well, a 50-cent-word way of saying “cooking stuff that smells good.”

‘I take a roast in the morning and rub it with garlic and olive oil and fresh basil and thyme,’ he explains. ‘Then I go down to the assisted living area at 2 p.m. and stick the roast in the oven so the residents can smell the roast cooking. Then we carve it in front of them and serve it. We have found that atmosphere and surroundings have a lot to do with residents’ appetites. They eat better when they see that people pay attention to them.’

The writer’s emphasis on just-the-facts reporting—steering clear of hokey feature-story metaphors and artificially imposed uplift—makes a story that could have been maudlin and exploitive into something legitimately moving. A humane chef and a writer’s restraint—just two more things to be thankful for this year.