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Cooking binds generations

Cooking for seniors, says Joey Birkle, presents both special challenges and special rewards.

Birkle, who’s been fascinated by food and kitchens since he was a baby, began his career at Otterbein Senior Life Choices in Lebanon as a relief cook 12 years ago and has worked his way up over the years to become executive chef.

“Joey thrives on the challenge of creating a meal from start to finish, and loves to cook from scratch,” says family friend Terry Ewen of Middletown, who recommended Birkle for Our Good Cooks. “He also likes to re-create menu items from restaurants, making his own version of them that oftentimes turn out tastier than the original!”

We chatted with Birkle, 32, about his passion for cooking and the pleasures of cooking for the elderly.

What’s the role of an executive chef at a retirement home?

I do everything from overseeing the cooks and salad production to writing and adjusting recipes to suit our needs. I also ensure that the food tastes good before serving it to our residents, guests, and employees. There’s nothing worse than getting a plate that looks good but taste like sawdust!

Tell us more about Otterbein and the people who live there.

Otterbein has just celebrated 101 years of service to the community. It started an orphanage and then later became a home for the elderly. We think of our residents as extended family. Many of our lady residents will come up and give me a hug and that makes me feel appreciated, that I’m doing a good job. They know it’s not easy to feed a large group and please everyone at the same time.

We serve about 400 people for lunch Monday through Friday and that includes employees, health care and independent residents. Our goal is to offer choices — to allow our residents to decide if they would like the meal of the day or to choose from five other entree selections that change each season. We’ve received such a positive feedback from that approach that some days it hard to keep up with the demand, but it’s something that I know they enjoy.

At supper, we have servers who come to the table to offer a tossed salad or homemade soup that I usually prepare myself. We offer grilled steak and grilled salmon in the restaurant. We’re now offering chicken strips and fries, simple pleasures that make people happy.

What do you like about cooking for seniors?

They like good food, and they know what they like. Some prefer simple foods, others like dishes that are more complex. We also have those people who aren’t able to eat as well so we provide special diets for them — like a ground meat diet or a pureed diet. I’ve also have done special diets — vegetarian, lactose-intolerant and gluten free.

I’ve learned that the smallest thing can cause a huge reaction so I’m cautious and look hard to ensure that our residents are safe from anything that can harm them if they happen to be on a special diet.

Our seniors have no problem letting us know what they would like to see or have on the menu — some want healthier options, others would rather see “deep-fried anything.” Many like to see the foods they’ve grown up with so serving them something they can’t pronounce might become an issue. And then I might hear a few of their loud spoken thoughts, but it’s all taken in good humor.

What’s different about cooking for older people?

What we consider a normal portion size is often too big for seniors. Even if it’s a four-ounce serving, two ounces may be just fine. Four ounces doesn’t seem a lot, but to a resident it may be too much so we respect their wishes and give them what they would like.

Also your taste changes as you mature, so sometimes a meal that a resident once loved doesn’t taste the same. That gets frustrating sometimes if I’ve worked hard to make sure the food tastes great, that my cooks have followed the recipe. When a resident tells me it’s not good, I admit that it hurts sometimes but I swallow my pride and try to realize that part of it is my fault and I need to try harder to ensure that the resident is satisfied with the meal.

My biggest problem is salt because it’s in everything and it’s a food enhancer. If I use a low-sodium beef or chicken base I lose flavor in soups and sauces and gravies. Herbs and spices are wonderful when you know how to use them but salt brightens and brings it all together, and knowing that a lot of seniors have high blood pressure adds some pressure to me to ensure that the food we serve is where it is supposed to be.

What other challenges do you face in your job as a chef? Balance: the balance of flavors and salt, the balance of time and effort, the never-ending task of ensuring that the meals are a success, that they are served hot, on time and that we have enough of everything.

What tips do you have for someone cooking for a senior?

Have patience, find the foods that they love or liked, slowly add something new. Keep it fresh and exciting and if they don’t like something, try something else.

Where did you grow up and what associations does that have with food for you?

I’m originally from a small town in Kentucky called Petersburg. My family still lives there. The Christian Church does a Chili/ Oyster Stew Supper for the community every October and I can remember those special suppers from way back when I was little.The first place I always headed was the kitchen.

Now I get to join in the fun, I go back every year to prepare the chili and oyster stew. The Firehouse always did fish fries, and I would be part of that, taking orders and eventually helping to fry the fish.

What made you become a chef?

I had an urge to cook even as a baby. I tormented my mom who would have to hunt down her pans in order to fix dinner. When I started to crawl, I would go up to her so she could pick me up to see what was on the stove and if it had a lid on it she would have to take it off to let me see what it was or I was not a happy baby.

My Granny Patty Birkle encouraged me, she saw potential in me. She would get me play stoves for Christmas when I was younger. Unfortunately she never saw me graduate from college — she passed away in 2010, two months before I was finished. I had a graduation party that I catered and invited the whole town, still feeling her loss. I knew she was there cheering me on and proud of me for completing my one true dream.

Who taught you to cook?

I learned how to cook from my mom, from TV shows, and I started to read cookbooks like novels. I would watch my mom make a pie, or a pot of chicken and dumplings, and she often let me help. Later I would make supper while both my parents worked; I would come home from school and fix dinner, clean up and start on my homework.

I started to notice that I was never too far from a kitchen. I once joked that “ I don’t judge you by your looks, but how big your kitchen is.”

In 2003 I started at Sinclair Community College while I was working full time, and finished in 2010 with my associate’s degree in hospitality management and culinary arts.

What are your favorite ingredients?

I use a lot of garlic and thyme, and I have been on a kick with fresh zucchini and yellow squash, bell peppers and asparagus. now that it’s Fall, I’ll start using acorn squash, pumpkins, and sweet potatoes. Around Thanksgiving I try to make my granny’s Sweet Potato Casserole because it holds a special place in my heart.

I’ll roast acorn squash with butter, brown sugar and cinnamon, or make a soup out of it. I’ll prepare roasted pumpkin soup, with carrots, potatoes, garlic, onions, and fresh pumpkin that has been seeded and peeled, tossed with oil and roasted then pureed and added to chicken broth and finished with heavy cream.

What do you love about cooking?

I like that you can make anything taste good and I like the transformation from a raw product or a multitude of ingredients into a meal — whether it’s a one-pot or a multi-course meal.

Imagination plays a key role: If you can dream it, think it and experiment with it to make it into what you want to be, then it can happen. I amaze myself sometimes at how I can transform something like left-over baked potatoes into a wonderful side dish with little or no effort. All it took was a brainstorm on how I was going to turn a mess into a feast.

What advice do you have for new cooks?

Don’t be afraid to try, don’t think that it’s just too much to make a meal, or that a miracle is going to happen in your oven. Don’t give up, try again and find the mistakes. It takes a lot of burnt fingers and grease scars to create a good meal. If it turns out wonderful and you’re getting requests for it, then you have succeeded. Then it’s time to try something else, a new adventure in cooking.

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