As the steel pan chimes in the hot summer sun, residents at Tapestry at Village Gate West enjoy Caribbean-inspired jerk chicken, salt fish and braised oxtail to celebrate Toronto’s annual Caribana Festival. Diners select additional dishes from the buffet, which includes pineapple, avocado and cucumber salads, while gourmet chef Michael Howell barbeques under the gazebo.
This Toronto-area retirement community lured Howell away from his restaurant career in January 2008. The celebrated chef has dished up his magic at many high-profile Toronto restaurants, including Auberge du Pommier, Moishes Steak House and the Four Seasons Hotel. He was skeptical when he first got a call from Tapestry general manager Cathy Wallbank in June 2007. “At first I thought, ‘retirement living? Forget it!’” he recalls.
Howell met with Wallbank anyway, as they had worked together at The Waterside Inn in Port Credit, Ontario. And he was glad he did. Wallbank showed him the facility’s deluxe floor plans and explained the fine dining idea. “I fell in love with the concept,” Howell says. “It’s like the Four Seasons of retirement living.”
First-time visitors often think they’re at the wrong address when they walk into the luxurious lobby of Tapestry at Village Gate West. “I like it when people come in and say, ‘What is this place?’” Wallbank says. The wondering may continue as visitors tour the expansive facility, which includes a pool, spa, gym, golf simulator and even a full-screen cinema.
Duncan Green, 82, says he felt more like he was stepping into a hotel than a retirement home when he first walked into Tapestry. “I thought, ‘Ooh, I could live here,’” he recalls. He moved in last July and continues to be impressed by the food. “My wife, I should add, was an excellent cook. So I’m used to good food,” he says. “Michael’s Atlantic salmon impresses the hell out of everyone. It’s like a tower with wild rice and potato pancakes.”
Green’s praise is validating for Howell, who goes out of his way to adapt to the residents’ tastes. “It’s a challenge having the same captive audience three times a day. There’s no hiding,” Howell says. What surprised him the most when he took over the Tapestry kitchen was how difficult it is to get residents to eat vegetables. He went so far as to craft a vegetable martini for one of the Wednesday night cocktail hours to sneak in some vitamins. “That went over well, not bad,” he says. He loves experimenting with new recipes while trying to balance the residents’ preferences. “I’ve put a lot of twists on basic comfort foods, like an upgraded macaroni and cheese.”
Wallbank, a 30-year veteran of the hotel industry, assembled a food advisory board made up of Tapestry residents, including Green, to make sure everyone’s needs are being met. “When you have a group of people ranging in age from 60 to 90, you’re going to get different tastes,” she explains. Howell sits in on the meetings to listen to feedback and take requests. “Most of the time, they just say ‘We love what you’re doing in the dining room, don’t change a thing,’” he says. “It’s really gratifying to hear that.”
Residents can book the party room for private events catered by Howell’s team, which Green has twice taken advantage of. In December, he hosted a tree-decorating party and wanted to avoid the formality of the private dining room. “I went to Michael and said, ‘We usually just order pizza for our tree-decorating parties. What can you do?’”
Howell’s solution was to make lasagna, Caesar salad and garlic bread, served in the demonstration kitchen, which was a hit with Green’s family, especially his grandchildren, who appreciated its proximity to the indoor pool. And, last July, Green hosted his birthday party at Tapestry, asking Howell if he could barbecue in the outdoor area. Howell happily obliged.
Fine dining at Masterpiece West Island
Tapestry isn’t the only residence that has caught on to the growing trend of five-star retirement homes. In November, Masterpiece West Island opened in Point-Claire, Quebec, just outside of Montreal, poaching Michele Forgione from his post as executive chef at the five-star Hôtel Le Crystal in downtown Montreal.
Masterpiece brought Forgione on board six months before its grand opening—to give him enough time to scout the area for the best local suppliers, test menus and bone up on cooking for the over-75 crowd.
Like Howell, the 32-year-old chef was skeptical at first. “When I got the call I thought, ‘Am I retiring my career?’” But the more Forgione heard about the new concept, the more he liked it. “For residents, it’s like living at a five-star resort—you’re on a big cruise on land,” he says. “Enough with the Jell-O, enough with the chalky mashed potatoes. Seniors deserve better.”
Forgione wasn’t the only one impressed by Masterpiece West Island’s approach. He invited his former sous chef, Paulo Posada, to help out at a dinner for prospective residents. Posada was blown away by how gratifying the experience was. “It’s like your grandma or grandpa coming up to you, kissing your cheeks and saying ‘Thank you for this great meal,’” Forgione says. Posada asked Forgione how he too could become a part of the new residence. Forgione took care of all of the details, and in September, Posada left his own post at Hôtel Le Crystal to rejoin Forgione in the kitchen.
Forgione oversees Masterpiece West Island’s three eateries: Pepe Roni, a casual bistro; The Prince Peter Pub, which offers traditional pub fare; and Le Papillon D’Or, the formal dining room. The latter offers nutritious, heart-healthy fare. At first, learning to cook without rich butter and creams—staples of gourmet cuisine—was a challenge for Forgione. But he frequently cooks with extra-virgin olive oil and steams vegetables instead of boiling them to retain more nutrients.
Residents place their dinner orders in advance, before 1 p.m. daily, which helps Forgione know exactly how much food to prepare each night and to reduce waste. Residents can choose soup or salad and one of two different entrees as well as one of three dessert offerings.
Forgione tries to accommodate requests as often as possible, but he frequently puts his own spin on things. One of the most popular dishes is spaghetti and meatballs. Forgione prepares it with fresh pasta and meatballs made from beef that’s ground daily in house. To appease the many requests for good old-fashioned meat and potatoes, Forgione often makes filet mignon with fingerling potatoes seasoned with sea salt. On burger night, Forgione uses ground choice cuts such as sirloin, serving the patties on fresh buns made by the pastry chef.
Knowing food shouldn’t be an afterthought, chef Roberto Mochi, originally from Rome, takes the menu very seriously. The dinner menu at The Rockcliffe Retirement Residence in Ottawa rotates monthly, offering four different entrée options each day, seven days a week. That presents residents with 28 different entrees choices per week; 112 options per month. There is at least one vegetarian dish each day; good news for the vegetarian resident who just moved in.
“The residents are like family. I have to impress them every day, and try to make sure the menu doesn’t get boring,” Mochi says. “I also have to make sure to have healthy options.” Mochi’s kitchen offers a different “bread of the day” varying from a tomato-herb foccacia to an herbed baguette, along with an open menu of fish.
Marjorie Graham, who has lived at The Rockcliffe since last July, was surprised by how good the food was. “I like good food,” she says. “My favourite dish here is probably the tender roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.”
Aside from the formal dining room, which features Royal Doulton china and fresh flowers, The Rockcliffe also has a breakfast and a coffee bar called The First Cup. Residents are able to order room service, if they don’t feel up to going downstairs to eat.
Juan Lee, The Rockcliffe’s maître d’, says his favourite part of the day is chatting with residents. “There are a lot of interesting conversations going on all the time in the dining room. Lunch and dinner are the big socializing times for the residents,” Lee says.
Good food continues to bring people together; ensuring this trend toward high-quality dining at retirement residences will continue, Wallbank says, especially as more demanding baby boomers enter retirement living. “I know when I’m at the age where I’m on the prospect list, my expectations will be even higher!” she says.