EVENTS AT THE REUTLINGER
Renowned Chef Pioneers Food Changes
One morsel at a time
April 6, 2015
Senior living is taking a turn for the better at The Reutlinger Home for Jewish Living, where Alison Negrin, of Berkeley’s fabled Chez Panisse and Poulet Restaurants, and a founding chef at Bridges Restaurant in downtown Danville, consults with the Food Service staff to stir up new menu items that are modern, healthy, appealing and delicious.
This is not Alison’s first foray into institutional dining. She spent twelve years as executive chef at John Muir Health in Concord, CA, helping to change the image of hospital food. She worked with the staff to serve fresh food that is served attractively and tastes great. “There is no reason why nutrition standards can’t be met deliciously,” she said. “Eating a delicious, attractive meal should be a highlight of the day.”
Alison took the leap away from fine dining after her son was born and she decided not to continue as an executive chef with its grueling schedule and 12-14 hour days. Always interested in the healing power of food, she studied alternative therapies, plant-based nutrition, Chinese dietary traditions and the Indian practice of natural healing. She attended Bauman College and earned a certificate from Cornell University in the process. “I use these things wherever I work,” she said.
Currently Alison loves consulting in her new role as founder of Chef Alison Negrin and Associates, helping Restaurants and Institutions modernize and improve the quality and sustainability of their menus. She, better than most because of her experience, understands that it’s difficult to try new things when you’re under pressure to produce many meals on schedule. “The staff knows I’ll be there with them.”
Her goals are to expand the variety, quality and seasonality of ingredients used in recipes, and to increase the skills and knowledge base of the kitchen staff. “So many people today are into food, I want to broaden the taste buds, help The Reutlinger step up to the plate and be more adventurous,” she said.
“My food was always very healthy, clean, not heavy,” she said. “It was what I liked. And I was always interested in the romanticism of where our food comes from. The quality of ingredients was a mantra when I was at Chez Panisse. Suppliers would come in the back door with mushrooms and baskets of lettuce. That is why I still like small.”
Fresh, well prepared food offers a therapeutic advantage in assisted living communities where residents fight fading memories, taste buds and appetites, she believes. Yet the national obsession with new ways of preparing food, using flavors from different cultures, and knowing where it comes from, has not hit most institutions.
Alison is emphasizing the importance of healthy food and helping The Reutlinger look at sourcing for local produce, cage free eggs, organic foods, and poultry grown without antibiotics. “It is very exciting,” she says, “and challenging. Residents need choices.” And she provides the staff with skills and information based on her font?? Forte? of layering flavors, and working with different cultural cuisines, and cooking styles.
Perhaps surprisingly, The Reutlinger does not pose the same dietary dilemmas she had at John Muir, and the diners do not pose the same demands she sees at other dining establishments. “I haven’t had a nut or gluten allergy. No one is vegetarian or vegan,” she noted. “No one asks where the food comes from either,” she muses. “Dietary restrictions are minimal. I don’t use a lot of salt; sometimes things do need to be chopped or pureed.”
She enjoys developing recipes and working with Reutlinger’s dietary director, Sonia Gonzalez, and the dietetic manager, Zainab Fallay.. “We meet Sonia tells me what she needs for a holiday. We talk about helping the staff. They have a six week menu cycle and I try to bring in more healthy food and new flavors. Some recent recipes are butternut squash and orange soup, chicken breasts sautéed with fresh shitake mushrooms and leeks, and sautéed assorted greens with golden raisins and pine nuts.”
“It helps that I am Jewish and I understand the holiday cycle as well as the seasonal cycle,” Alison said. She grew up cooking with her mother and grandmother in a Greek and Jewish household. “We made phyllo dough by hand,” she reminisced.
“We have fun at The Reutlinger, doing holiday research, playing tradition with a twist,” Alison said. “For example, we worked on an arugula salad, a savory hamantaschen pastry with sautéed onions and feta cheese for Purim, and a Syrian lentil soup.”
Alison also believes that food should be presented attractively. Roasting vegetables rather than steaming them, she said, adds color and appeal, not to mention preserving nutritional value, as does adding parsley, cilantro or watercress to couscous with nuts. Before attending culinary school, Alison earned degrees in sculpture and literature from Berkeley. “What I found is that culinary art is indeed an art. And that was it! I became consumed with culinary art, and still am."
She likes to use modern sauces rather than heavy gravies, such as a mango salsa on grilled salmon, and thinks the residents will enjoy more variety in soup selections.
“The residents may not be professional food reviewers,” she said, “but I walk around the dining room and, Boy, do they tell me what they like and don’t like!” The new food has not charmed all the residents, she acknowledged. Standards like grilled cheese and hamburgers are still popular. Chimichurri sauce? “I don’t like it,” someone said. “It’s a crazy name on a beautifully printed menu.”
While you don’t have to go far to find a resident who is enjoying fresh, grilled fish, whole grains, and fresh fruits and vegetables, many of the men and women who grew up in more traditional times often like more traditional foods. So the star chef turns her hand to kasha varnishkas and potato kugel, which she is currently working on to make thinner and crispier on top, per a resident’s comment.
The residents always have two entrée choices, plus a menu of sandwiches, like tuna melt, and a nice salad bar, she said.
Alison is happy that “the organization is improving the quality of everything as we cycle through the holidays and the seasons.” She is also encouraging The Reutlinger to learn about sustainable food practices, to buy more products raised or grown locally, and to use more whole grains. She is thrilled that the organization has just decided to begin working with composting along with their recycling.
Many of the residents are women who cooked most of their lives, Alison noted, and she thought they would enjoy culinary demonstrations. So she has been bringing in “Celebrity Chefs” like Kevin Weinberg (The Yacht Club), Linda Carucci (Art Institute of California, SF), Peter Chastain (Prima Ristorante), and Cindy Gershon (Sunrise Bistro), who talk about the dishes as they make them. The meals are then available during dinner.
Alison will demonstrate Sephardic cooking during a program in May. “I will be the celebrity chef! I am thinking about showing a phyllo dough, a North African chicken; couscous that are savory and sweet and intriguing; some cumin and cinnamon, and pine nuts,” she said in a rush.
Driving Alison are the ideas of healing with food, holistic nutrition, and empathy for others. “I really want to feed the people who are unhappy,” she said softly. “Like one man who called begging for a potato kugel. It matters to them.”
“The new food choices are making the residents feel alive inside. Alison Negrin is having a wonderful impact at The Reutlinger. We love how she is expanding the quality, variety and seasonality of ingredients, and increasing skills and knowledge of the kitchen staff,” said Jay Zimmer, CEO of The Reutlinger.
Chef Alison is updating the menus, teaching the kitchen staff, advocating for sustainability and nourishing the concept of food as a healing tool. Oh! And she can cook, too.