Good food and good neighbors

July 8, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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The first residents of the new independent living community at Beacon Hill at Eastgate moved in last November, just a few weeks after Timothy England began working there as executive chef and culinary director.

That was a fortuitous day for the epicures among them.

Some of those residents now can be seen working in their plots in the new community garden on the Beacon Hill grounds. Neighborhood people also have little plots there, and England and his staff are enthusiastically using the garden to provide fresh herbs and vegetables for their creations in the Beacon Hill kitchen.

Scott Kearny, a spokesman for Beacon Hill, said the basic concept behind England’s plans is to dispel the myths of retirement home dining, where it seems to some like every night is meatloaf night.

Beacon Hill at Eastgate is the nonprofit continuing care organization once known as Michigan Christian Home. In 2006, it changed its name and announced plans to build a new facility in the Eastgate neighborhood, on the site where the Metro Health Hospital still stood. At the time, Metro Health’s new facility was under construction in Wyoming, and the old hospital was planned for removal.

Kearny said Beacon Hill president/CEO Jeffrey Huegli wanted pleasant dining and good food to be one of the hallmarks of living at Beacon Hill’s residential units, because those are the elements that define the comfort of home and retirees moving there would appreciate it.

Beacon Hill has about 130 people in its independent living units and a total of 200 or more, when counting its assisted living and health-care facilities. About 80 percent of the 114 independent living units are occupied.

There are four dining rooms in the building known as The Commons. The complex is designed in the Tudor style and The Commons also includes a full-service spa and salon, fitness center with pool, a game room with a full-size golf simulator, a library, activity rooms and a chapel.

The dining facilities begin with the Bistro, which offers breakfast and lunch and seats 24. A larger informal dining room adjacent to it can seat at least another 40. Then there is the formal dining room, plus a private dining room that residents can reserve for family and friends to join them to celebrate wedding anniversaries and the like.

The formal dining room is used for special events; lately England has used it for special dinner meetings of employees. It has high ceilings above its white-linen table settings and has exposed wood beams and fireplaces plus art on the walls by local artists. England said people entering the room for dinner feel “like they just walked into a country club.”

Of course, each of the independent living units has a full kitchen, but England noted that he has heard some of the women residents proclaim that when they came there, they “retired” from cooking. Those who opt for an evening meal at the dining room simply call ahead and reserve a time slot. When seated, they have a menu to choose from, which usually includes from five to seven entrees.

England said the menu can include items such as Angus beef hamburgers, “my mother’s meatloaf,” beef tenderloin with a blackberry Merlot sauce and crumbled blue cheese, chicken cordon bleu, sole stuffed with crab, stuffed pork loin, etc.

“Every Friday night now,” said England, “we do clam chowder and prime rib, twice-baked potatoes, fresh vegetables …”

Some residents told England that they wanted classic Fourth of July food for the holiday, so hamburgers were on the menu, along with root beer floats and pasta salad.

England, a native of the Hart area, attended West Shore Community College near Scottville, where he studied hotel and commercial kitchen management. Then he started a catering business but left that to attend Grand Rapids Community College, which he said is rated in the top five culinary programs at U.S. community colleges. England graduated in 1986 with an associate’s degree in business and culinary arts.

While studying at GRCC, he worked at the Hilton Spinnaker restaurant, and later at the Crystal Springs Country Club. He was a sous-chef at Gibson’s for three years, and then started working at Calvin College, where he stayed for 20 years. He joined the American Culinary Federation and became a Certified Executive Chef.

In 1997, England was nominated and accepted for membership into the exclusive American Academy of Chefs, “one of the highest honors you can get as a chef,” he said.

Today, he is involved as an advisor at both the GRCC culinary school and Baker College’s Culinary Institute of Michigan in downtown Muskegon.

While construction was going on, Beacon Hill had focus meetings with people representing the Eastgate neighborhood association, and one thing neighbors mentioned was their desire for some permanent green space on the 22-acre site.

Later, when England was interviewing for the job he holds now, he and Huegli discussed England’s affinity with farmers — his relatives in Oceana County were farmers — and fresh fruit and vegetables. Huegli mentioned that there was space available for a garden and fruit trees.

“What better way to have a green space than an actual garden?” said England. Plus, it could be used by both Beacon Hill residents and people from the neighborhood.

“I wanted this garden so we can harvest fresh herbs, fresh Roma tomatoes, make our own sauces, use different fruits and vegetables,” he said.

Jim Engelsma of Engelsma Orchards near Standale was hired to select and plant 40 dwarf apple trees, representing eight varieties. The trees will produce their first crop in two years. There are also grape vines planted in the community garden.

England grew up in Oceana County, home of the National Asparagus Festival, so he spent a lot of time working in his relatives’ asparagus fields as a kid. He has now planted asparagus in the community garden, and seeing the first ferns come up this spring was a pleasant reminder of his agricultural legacy.

England noted that some people who sell their home and move to a retirement community sorely miss the little piece of dirt where they had raised flowers or vegetables.

“When we announced we were doing this, the response was overwhelming,” he said, and the garden suddenly took root in the community. About half of the individual gardeners with plots in the community garden are Beacon Hill residents; the other half are residents of the neighborhood.

The culinary staff at Beacon Hill also includes sous-chef Maggie Wilson-Ross, who worked in the kitchen at Frederik Meijer Gardens for eight years. As his second-in-command, she has “a wealth of knowledge” and is a “natural-born culinary person who just loves to cook,” said England.

Lead cook Jim Mosley is a graduate of the GRCC culinary school and makes “the meanest chicken enchilada and the sauces that go with it,” said England. The Bistro chef is Jason Clark, another “natural talent,” plus there are student interns from GRCC, and a server who is showing special skill as a baker on the side.

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