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His life is always a full plate

(ran SP HT TP editions)

Long before the sun's first rays appear, Fred Richards is on the road from his Spring Hill home to Lowry Place, an assisted living facility in Tampa.

The home's 60 residents never have to ask whether Chef Richards has arrived. The tantalizing smells of brewed coffee and breakfast delights begin to drift through the building soon after he turns on the stoves.

He prepares three meals a day, about 90 percent from scratch.

Richards, 61, started working in the restaurant business at age 14 as dishwasher in a yacht club restaurant on Long Island, N.Y. He has been involved in food preparation ever since.

"In the first restaurant, I worked in as a youngster; the chef would not take time to teach me anything about cooking," Richards said. "I just washed the dishes, pots and pans. But fortunately, others along the way shared information, tips, secrets and recipes. Most of my training through the years has been on-the-job training, but I did earn a degree from a hotel management school. Because of the help I received along the way from other chefs, I will always take the time to help others wanting to learn the profession."

Each weekday he awakens at 4:30 a.m. to get ready for the 45-mile drive to work.

Richards cares about his diners. He has learned the likes and dislikes of each resident and often makes adjustments in the menu to meet individual needs.

"I prefer to cook for senior citizens. It's in my heart," Richards said. "I am very attached to the residents at Lowry Place and truly love to do what I do.

"We get a dietary history sheet on each resident when they move in. Most of them can eat nearly anything as long as it is healthy, tasty and abundant. Others have diabetic or puree diets. We are very careful with each person. Some of my staff of five and myself must help feed occasionally."

Often family members and friends of the residents drop by at meal times to visit and dine.

"There is no such thing as needing an invitation to share a meal with loved ones at Lowry Place," Richards said. "When someone is visiting our residents, we just prepare them a plate."

For almost five decades Richards has learned to prepare food to nourish bodies and put smiles on the faces of diners. Diners in yacht clubs and country clubs, four- and five-star restaurants and nursing home facilities in New York and Miami have sampled his cuisine.

He says he loves to see the smiles of satisfaction on the faces of his diners as they savor a tasty meal.

According to Richards, Italian food is the favorite of most of the diners at Lowry Place, but he often adds shrimp, flounder, chicken and roast beef in various recipes.

His passion to cook for older people began as a youngster, when his father and stepmother turned their 14-bedroom family home on Long Island into a retirement home.

But Richards says he never made a conscious decision to become a chef. He said the jobs he took seemed to involve food preparation and the more experience he gained, the better the jobs seemed to get.

He compares his responsibility as a dietitian and chef to that of the medical staff.

"What is consumed by the human body goes a long way in determining the health of a person, so I am very sensitive to be sure I do what I can to prevent as much sickness as I can through healthy food," he said.

With so many residents in Lowry Place, Richards says it is not practical to bake cakes each day someone has a birthday. However, his staff makes sure there is a special time for celebration.

They bake one large cake each month to celebrate all the birthday people of that month and everybody is invited to celebrate with them.

He says individual celebrations are planned for special occasions, such as a 100th birthday.

Richards says the single greatest pleasure he receives takes place each morning.

"Every day when they come into the dining hall for breakfast, I have this good feeling just because they are here again and I believe I have had a part in that," he said. "To continue living, people must eat properly and that is what I help them do. I help them stay healthy and prolong their life."