Moments, memories, food
Divakar Raju is a chef, but he serves a lot more than food
“If people are feeling hungry, they’ll put a piece of cheese between two piece of bread. When they come down, they want more than that. They want to have a social experience, to come down to talk at the dining table. We want to give them a dining experience. Not just to come and eat and go.”
Divakar Raju is the corporate manager of culinary services at Delmanor in Toronto. That’s his title anyway. To the people he serves, he’s a chef, an entertainer, a listening ear, and a friend.
“The biggest challenge is catering to the palette of 120 people. All of them have grown with food. Everyone has an opinion about food. If you’re an engineer no one tells you how to build a rocket or how to build a car, but if you’re a chef everyone has an opinion or a recipe.”
It’s a challenge he meets enthusiastically, every day, and he inspires his staff to do the same. “I always tell all my chefs, you need to go out there and talk to the people, introduce yourself, introduce your cooks. Listen to what they say. If something is wrong, change it. If you just stay in the back of the house, that’s not going to work. You need to be front and centre, meeting all the residents, talking to them, saying hi, asking how it’s going.”
All of those things—likes, dislikes, personalities, lifestyles, even opinions—find their way onto the menu. Which, Divakar feels, is exactly how it should be. “Food is such an integral part of their lives. It’s part of the community. People don’t come to look at the chandeliers and the royal Dalton china, or any of the fancy stuff. They have to have good food! And we are empowered to do whatever it takes to make people happy.”
Sometimes it takes a rack of lamb, a tenderloin steak. But not always. “We can’t dismiss the lasagna and the hot dogs,” says Divakar. “They get excited about a good hot dog. We don’t feature it on the menu, but we have it, and if you’d like a good hot dog or a good burger, great! We’ll make you one.”
As important as the food is, Divakar believes that it’s also about getting people together, sharing something together. “Those are moments that we need to create for people,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about.”
“One of our dishes, a salmon recipe, which I personally made. It’s very Canadian: roasted salmon with roasted mustard glaze. It’s one of our signature items. It’s pretty popular. People really look forward to that dish.”
What are the challenges specific to cooking for residents, every day, all the year through?
"We need to find new ways to make it more interesting. When people come to our dining room—families—they see our menu and they say ‘Wow! You have rack of lamb, and you have three bean minestrone or rainbow trout.’ They get so excited about it. But for our residents who have it on a daily basis, the wow factor is gone. Are there complaints some times? Of course! Wearing the chef’s jacket for so many years, that doesn’t qualify me to make good food. Some of the best food comes from grandmothers, or mothers, who have been cooking all their lives. But if you make food with love and passion, it’ll all work out. And if you don’t enjoy what you do, what’s the point?”
Divakar Raju is the corporate manager of culinary services at Delmanor Northtown in Toronto. We reached him at work, just before lunch, which was kale and white bean soup, pear and fennel salad, French omelets, chicken stuffed peppers, and a parfait for dessert.