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Chef Teaches, Learns from Senior Students

0053When Ray Riddle, food service director at Chesterbrook Residences, a senior assisted housing facility in North Arlington, started a monthly cooking class for the facility’s residents, he planned not only to teach his senior pupils something, but to learn from them as well.

0053When Ray Riddle, food service director at Chesterbrook Residences a senior assisted housing facility in North Arlington, started a monthly cooking class for the facility’s residents, he planned not only to teach his senior pupils something, but to learn from them as well.

With experienced home cooks like Norma O’Grady wanting to discuss her recipes, and Freda Jennings, a longtime school food service manager staying after class to discuss the meals offered at Chesterbrook, the newly hired chef has found not only a way to enrich the lives of these seniors, but also a brain trust of experienced cooks and tasters who aren’t afraid to speak their mind.

“I want them to feel comfortable enough to talk to me or the kitchen staff about their needs,” Riddle said. “It’s all about trust.”

Riddle was eager to offer food-based activities at the facility, saying that chefs both teach and learn in a classroom setting to keep their skills sharp.

And so, in a basement cooking space on a Monday in late February, Riddle invited a handful of interested seniors, visiting granddaughters and Chesterbrook staff to take part in the first of a series of six cooking classes. They gathered around a table finely appointed with china, cloth napkins and gold linens, donning complementary chef’s hats and aprons, ready to learn and enjoy a multi-course meal with some treats.

Riddle, standing in front of the kitchen classroom, delighted his audience with a food-related guessing game where residents were asked to identify two herbs provided. He then launched into his meal plan. Through demonstration, and both posing to and fielding questions from students, Riddle showed the women how he and his staff prepare the food they eat every day.

For some residents, the chance to take a behind-the-scenes look at how their food is prepared was eye-opening.00068

“I think in the future we will enjoy it even more, having seen this,” resident Marge Lohre said.

Within an hour – and with the help of some premade components and assistance from kitchen staff member Mai Nham – Riddle had prepared a soup, salad, entrée and dessert.

The menu featured French onion soup, a garden salad and chicken cordon bleu with vegetables, which was also served in the dining hall, and a chocolate mousse and petit four dessert, which was unveiled at the end of the class as a special treat not served to the residents not taking part in the exercise.

The crowd favorites were the vegetables that accompanied the entrée – green beans stuffed into a carrot ring and mushroom-shaped potatoes – which some of his students exclaimed were nearly too adorable to eat.

While the class was full of experienced cooks, they weren’t shy about giving credit where they felt credit was due, and expressed their gratitude to Riddle after their meal.
“He has all this experience, and his food has been great in the dining room,” Margaret Singer said, sharing how she enjoyed the class. “I’ll certainly be here for every one of them.”

While the class offered afternoon entertainment for the seniors, it also filled a void for some of the students since entering Chesterbrook, made by not being able to cook in a kitchen as they had for many years.

“The residents miss having a kitchen,” Sonja Ellis, the volunteer coordinator for Chesterbrook, said, adding that the residents have varied interests and that the staff tries to plan special events and activities tailored to those interests, to enrich their lives in the facility.

Between bites and lessons from Riddle, the women reminisced, reflecting on past kitchen memories – favorite meals, tips learned from years spent cooking for families and, much to the delight of those involved, how their husbands fared in the kitchen.

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