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One-on-one with… Robert (Robb) White

September 11, 2014
by Sandra Hoban, Managing Editor
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Robert (Robb) White

For most prospective long-term care (LTC) residents, culinary offerings can be the deciding factor on moving to the community. The Goodman Group has no worries in that department, with Chef Robert (Robb) White, CEC, CCA, AAC, national director of culinary operations, heading foodservice at the organization’s multistate LTC communities.

White is a recent recipient of the American Culinary Federation’s 2014 “Cutting-Edge Award” in recognition of his efforts in advancing the culinary industry and profession. He is a member of the American Academy of Chefs and the Escoffier Society. His service in various capacities across his 30 years of culinary experience ranges from the hospitality industry, corporate food service, country clubs and culinary education. He recently spoke with Long-Term Living Managing Editor Sandra Hoban about his transition from the hospitality industry to the healthcare industry.

You’ve been involved in various aspects of the culinary field for 30 years. How did you become interested in LTC foodservice as a career?

I’ve worked in most aspects of the culinary industry—chef; executive chef, culinary administrator, evaluator and educator. As dean of culinary at the Culinary Institute of Michigan, I saw many students deciding to use their skills and knowledge in the growing healthcare industry.

Seniors’ preferences and attitudes toward food enable me to be creative and incorporate some aspects of my experience from the hospitality side.

What does your role as national directory of culinary operations entail?

The Goodman Group has a total of 33 LTC properties in nine states. I’m based at The Goodman Group’s Chaska, Minn., headquarters but travel frequently to consult, educate and work with the chefs and dining directors at the various locations.

Food preferences vary throughout the region as does the availability of some food items. My role can become diverse, ranging from menu consultation and recipe development to instructing staff on how to operate and maintain a new piece of equipment.

What is part of your job do you find most rewarding?

This job rolls everything I love into one package—hands-on time in the kitchen, administrative obligations—basically, anything I can do to help and support our culinary staff. Because the focus is moving toward food as the deciding factor in choosing an LTC environment, the dining experience has to be exemplary. I have a great team of chefs and dietary managers to work with. Our main focus is to create menus based on nutritional content, presentation, flavor and texture.

Our communities have always provided residents with quality food. Right now, we are introducing residents to vegetarian and vegan options.

Why was the culinary aspect of food service embraced?

Culinary encompasses all food. We want to switch from the whole dietary aspect of food and present a restaurant appeal. To change the mindset, we need to present food in another light. I began this process from switching from institutional meals to very fresh, very local and organic food offerings.

Many of our communities have resident gardens, and that produce is used in our kitchens. Each community purchases local, in-season organic food through our vendor network and local growers and farmers. Healthful, source-procured food is not a fad; it’s an actual mentality switch.

Our Food for Life program is about giving residents healthy food choices. If residents want meatloaf, we take that recipe, dissect it, tweak it and serve the residents the dishes they desire, as a healthier option.

Can the culinary approach be successful for residents on special diets?

Medications and swallowing issues can make it unsafe or uncomfortable for a resident to be served a regular diet. Taking the culinary approach, it’s about color, presentation and the use of fresh herbs and spices that take special diets from bland to appetizing.

Everyone “eats with their eyes,” so the plate has to be appealing. On modified diets, along with flavor, we like to keep the food’s texture. For someone on a special diet who was used to chewing and swallowing food, it can be difficult. We want to try to keep the dish as close to the real thing as possible to encourage eating and enjoyment.

What do you feel is the most significant achievement of your department to date?

Our company’s life enrichment program is a collaborative effort designed to improve or advance the residents’ lives on mental, physical and spiritual levels. All the various programs are tied together. Our Food for Life program gives residents healthy food choices, which can make them stronger and improve or preserve fitness.

If someone has a poor appetite or is in pain, for example, aromatherapy can be used alternative therapy to combat pain and restore the appetite. Dining is an experience. All the senses are involved: The food must not only smell and taste good; it must be beautifully plated and served on well-appointed tables. Music is part of the experience, too.

What advice can you offer other organization trying to improve their dining programs?

Don’t be afraid to try. Leadership needs to be committed. There have been times we’ve tripped, but that hasn’t hindered us at all. Buy organic. Offer fresh fruits and vegetables and make things from scratch. Those are the things that make a difference.

At The Goodman Group properties, we are in with both feet and haven’t looked back. Commit to doing what’s best; it might not be the most cost-effective way, but it’s our commitment to our residents.