IMPROVISING IN THE KITCHEN

By Megan McClelland

Growing up, one of my favorite things was coming home to a warm, home-cooked meal. My mom was the best cook. She would make all kinds of foods: chicken marsala, homemade ravioli, beef broccoli stir fry. I was always guessing what would be on the daily menu. As I got older, I became more fascinated with not just the delicious taste of my mom’s meals, but how she made them. I was leaving for college soon and wanted to learn to make my favorite meals all on my own. 

I started by watching my mom cook, bugging her with questions. “What is that spice? Why do you stir it like that? How do you know how much to add?” As you can imagine, my mom did not like me in her kitchen at first. But, soon I began to help cutting up vegetables and stirring the pot on the stove, and my mom became a little more accepting. By the time I left for college, I could make all of my mom’s best recipes, almost as well as her. 

During my dietetic internship, I continue to improve my culinary skills. I learned from accomplished chefs and got firsthand experience with large, foodservice management operations during my rotation at Charlestown Retirement Community. Charlestown is a senior retirement community located right outside of Baltimore, Maryland. The campus is 110 acres and offers both senior living and continuing care. Eight unique restaurants and cafes are spread throughout the campus, providing breakfast, lunch, and dinner for residents. My internship partner and I worked in a cafeteria style cafe called the Shortline. Great for a quick bite, it offers 2 main entrees, 4 hot sides, sandwiches, salads, and more. 

My intern partner and I had a variety of experiences, but one of my favorites was testing out new recipes. One of the Shortline Cafe’s chefs suggested that we take a look at their rotating menu. After much thought, we shared that the menu items available were well thought out and sounded delicious, but we wanted to incorporate more variety in the side items and nutritional balance of the meals. We noticed most of the carbohydrate-rich sides were either potatoes or rice, so we brainstormed new options. We had to make sure we catered the item to the specific population of Charlestown. We learned from the chefs that if the food was too spicy, salty, or out of the ordinary, the residents would not eat it. Ultimately, we came across a delicious sounding Mediterranean Farro Risotto recipe, perfect to go along with our future Mediterranean Theme Meal. Farro is a somewhat uncommon grain, but is similar to barley, so we predicted the residents would give it a try. For a grain, it is packed with protein, fiber, and other nutrients, giving a healthy boost to the meal.

Our first recipe testing

When I try a new recipe at home, I buy the ingredients, follow the recipe, and dig in. The process is different in a large foodservice operation. Instead of going to the grocery store to buy ingredients, we walked into a giant storage room and refrigerator searching through boxes for each ingredient. For any ingredient not available in the Shortline Cafe, we improvised. In order to decrease waste and limit the number of ingredients purchased, Charlestown uses each ingredient in it’s inventory for multiple dishes. For example, tomatoes are used for both stewed tomatoes and tomato soup. If there are extra tomatoes from the stewed tomatoes, they can be used for tomato soup the next day. When testing the recipe, we had to work with the available inventory. After making changes to our original recipe based on the available ingredients, we put our culinary skills to work and tested it. After hours of washing, chopping, and simmering, we proudly presented the finished product to the chefs. We waited for critiques like contestants on a TV cooking competition show. “Not bad,” said one chef, followed by a few recommendations. With great relief, we took the chef’s suggestions and tested the recipe again…and again. On the third try, we got it. The chefs loved the final product and even wanted to add the side dish permanently to the menu rotation!

Our perfected farro risotto recipe

After spending time in the kitchen at Charlestown, we learned that the ability to adapt and cater to one’s audience are pertinent skills, especially in the foodservice industry. When we first started brainstorming ideas, we wanted to try a recipe that was filled with multiple distinct spices and unique flavors. Although my intern partner and I liked the idea, it did not cater to our audience’s tastes. When we tested out our farro recipe, we found several of the ingredients we needed were not available, so we thought on our feet and tweaked the recipe. We tested the recipe three times before we got it right. My time at Charlestown has given me a new look at the foodservice industry. I appreciate the culinary start my mom gave me and that I was able to grow in this area during my foodservice rotation. With the help of the foodservice staff, I have gained valuable culinary experience and life skills that will continue to help me in my career as a dietitian.

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