Diners began with a warm hand towel sprayed lightly with a subtle lavender fragrance, a way to wake up the palate. From there, guests were presented with a white enamel spoon, an "amuse bouche" of blood orange sorbet, sweet and tangy.
This was not lunch at the latest red-hot restaurant, not a white-tableclothed stage for the celebrity chef of the moment. It was lunch mid-December in the dining room of the Watermark at Trinity, a 117-apartment retirement community in Pasco County. Chef Josh Marlowe was, however, doing something gastronomically innovative: He was introducing caregivers and would-be residents to the concept of Thrive Dining.
Most of us look forward to mealtimes. They are markers in our days, opportunities for community and nurturance. But for many individuals with cognitive, neuromuscular or physical challenges, using a knife and fork can be challenging. Mealtimes can require too protracted a period of focus. And unwieldy bites of meats or vegetables can pose chewing and swallowing risks. In short, mealtimes can lose their luster, becoming all but unfeasible.
Many retirement centers and nursing homes combat these problems by taking the path of least resistance: Grilled cheese and chicken nuggets for everyone! Yes, they are portable and require limited manual dexterity, but they are extremely limited nutritionally.
The new assisted living and memory care community in Trinity was recently the site of a national training for Watermark Retirement Communities nationwide. The idea is this: Take traditional balanced meals and transform them into bite-sized hors díoeuvres intended to be eaten by hand.
"Our chefs were trained for a week in the methods," Marlowe explained during lunch. "Thereís the meatball method, the turnover method, the cupcake method, the roulade method ó so you get all the components of a meal. Everything is measured, with the correct amount of nutrients, ground and reinvented as something that can be eaten by hand. Memory care residents are likely to wander and this helps to know that they are getting proper nutrition."
Marlowe, 34, graduated from the Cordon Bleu in Dover, N.H., in 2003, and was a country club chef for many years before coming to Watermark as executive chef. His training had prepared him for the traditional and appealing dishes many of the Watermark residents were eating: chicken salad sandwiches, pot roast with veggies and mashed potatoes, crab cakes and chef salads.
But those same dishes were put through the patent-pending Grind Dining process developed by chefs Sarah Gorham and Stone Morris. The basic idea is to take cooked proteins and grind them with other ingredients so that they retain their taste, texture and flavor, and then encapsulate that in a crepe, turnover or other no-fuss edible wrapper. Picture it: beef stroganoff and chicken piccata transformed into handheld portions with the same contents and nutritional values as the originals.
As a food critic, I was a wee bit skeptical. A pot roast dinner became a flaky turnover, the pastry buttery and yielding, the filling savory without being messy. A chicken salad sandwich became a finer puree of chicken salad rolled into a soft crepe, fresh fruit accenting the plate and providing color. The only clunker for me was the "chef salad bites," a rough chop of the meats, cheese and egg of a traditional salad, formed into perfect scoops and offered with a dippable dressing. It wasnít for me, but just a glance around the dining room let me know I was in the minority.
Not every Thrive Dining item appealed to everyone, but the intention was clear. Bring the dignity of dining back and reintroduce the full range of ingredients, flavors and textures to people who may have been robbed of the joys of dining.
For more information about the program, and for information about how to adapt foods for loved ones with cognitive, neuromuscular or physical challenges, visit grinddining.com or watermarkcommunities.com/ thrive-dining.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.