From can to pan? More like farm to table
Defying expectations with creative cuisine gets Beacon Hill chefs and staff noticed.
As Tim England was readying to start his job as executive chef at Beacon Hill at Eastgate, he wanted to avoid the stigma of bland senior living food from the “open a can and dump it in a pan” method.
With a career in fine dining including 20 years as executive chef at Calvin College, where he cooked for royalty and heads of state, he wanted to keep creatively shaping menus and pleasing diners.
Many senior living communities are tied down by major contracts with food providers and supply a large number of complexes and residents, stifling the creativity of kitchen staff. England and his team, including Sous Chef Maggie Thiel, can show off their culinary talents for Beacon Hill’s 200-plus residents.
“That stigma (of bland senior-living food) drives us crazy as chefs,” England said. “It doesn’t take that much more to do good food right.”
Consider the menu showcased on the day the Business Journal visited the retirement community: cornmeal-crusted trout with fried sage beurre blanc and pancetta, roasted garlic studded New York strip with a rosemary compound butter, and breast of chicken roulade stuffed with roasted red peppers, Muenster cheese and spinach wrapped in duck bacon were among the day’s highlights.
Despite their dining crowd being almost exclusively Beacon Hill residents, the chefs aren’t flying under the radar. In 2015, England was named 2014 Chef of the Year among American Culinary Federation members in Grand Rapids.
This year, Thiel was named 2015 Chef Professional of the Year by ACF, and the Beacon Hill staff was awarded the SLO Award (Sustainable, Local, Organic) for “best practices in culinary arts.”
The awards are based on nominations and voting by area members of the ACF.
“Chef Tim and his culinary team at Beacon Hill have received this kind of recognition because it was well earned,” said Dan Gendler, program director at the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College. “You can always expect expertly prepared food there.”
Thiel, who was sous chef at Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park for more than eight years prior to Beacon Hill, said the recognitions mean a lot because they come from their peers in the industry and are rarely bestowed upon senior living communities.
The Chef Professional Award recognizes a culinarian committed to the food service industry through personal and professional development, leadership and educational support to fellow food professionals.
“There’s a humbleness that comes with it,” said Thiel, who has known England since she was a child. “It’s definitely an honor, and there’s that sense of gratefulness that comes with being recognized by the people we work with professionally.”
For both England and Thiel to be recognized is a testament to Beacon Hill’s commitment to food, said CEO and President Jeff Huegli.
England noted how the kitchen and dining room lie at the center of the facility, with resident wings to the east and west and a new renovation to the north.
“Exceptional dining is a cornerstone of our philosophy here and differentiates our community from others,” Huegli said. “We focus on the joy found in eating beautifully prepared and nutritious meals.”
Local and fresh food is at the heart of what England and his staff prepare every day, which helps provide flavorful menu items for the residents. Thiel said residents largely avoid spicy foods, and many have dietary restrictions and must watch what they eat.
When he first started at Beacon Hill, England said there was a learning curve with sauces, but as a chef, he said it’s important to help eaters experience new items.
“We went through a major ‘hold the sauce’ phase,” he said. “It was driving the chefs crazy, but we started putting ramekins (small serving bowls) on the side and curiosity got the best of them. As chefs, it is our job to train, change and develop palates and to give them a new style of dining they may not have experienced before.”
The SLO Award was given to Beacon Hill partially because of the kitchen work, but also because of the half-acre garden on the Beacon Hill property. In addition to the chefs working with local farmers, the on-site farm helps provide the Beacon Hill kitchen with fresh produce all year.
Last year, the garden produced 600 pounds of cabbage, 30 pounds of asparagus, 20 pounds of raspberries, 25 bushels of tomatoes, nine bushels of apples, five bushels of grapes, five bushels of cucumbers and fresh summer flowers for dining tables.
Those fresh products are often higher quality at cheaper prices than a restaurant can get from distributors.
“Having the best raw product we can start with keeps us from going into that bland territory,” Thiel said. “It’s not just the usual ‘meatloaf Wednesday.’”
Kitchen staff tends the garden, and 24 extra garden lots for residents and neighbors help eliminate waste — though Beacon Hill does compost six tons of waste that ends up back in the garden.
“When you have a chef till the soil, plant the seeds, weed, hoe, cultivate, watch the whole thing go from base dirt to production, I guarantee the total utilization will be higher,” England said. “It’s a total utilization, and it’s wonderful.”
England utilizes his kitchen staff, too, relying on the 20 employees to use their creativity to help make the menus, which are redone every week to include six items, including a beef, chicken, pork, fish and fifth entrée with a nightly special.
“Why would I hire someone who has training in a cuisine, and many who have worked at the best restaurants downtown, and tell them to only do it my way?” England asked. “If their soul and creativity aren’t fed, they’ll move on.”
Thiel said the same attitude applies to the dining room, as residents are free to leave the campus for meals.
“It’s a challenge brought to us to keep them here,” she said. “We want to keep them interested and keep things fresh.”