There’s a cooking-career gold mine in retirement homes

Discerning Boomers want better food, making institutional cooking an attractive alternative to the chaos of restaurant work

Amica at Oakville resident Norm Graham works on a recipe with students Jennifer Lindeman (left) and Nicole Ates. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Amica at Oakville resident Norm Graham works on a recipe with students Jennifer Lindeman (left) and Nicole Ates. (Photograph by Nick Iwanyshyn)

Cooking-school grads often don’t last long in restaurants. The low wages (frequently below the legal minimum) and long hours (frequently beyond the legal maximum, without overtime pay) leave them exhausted and frustrated. But there is career gold to be mined—good wages and benefits—in long-term care and seniors’ residences.

Baby Boomers, the generation that won’t stop telling you how they once saw the Doors open for Simon and Garfunkel, continue to shape our culture, this time by demanding cocktails at 5 p.m. and crème brûlée for dessert.

“It’s a lucrative field,” says Christine Walker, chair of George Brown Chef School in Toronto. “The Baby Boomers don’t want to eat mush. They want to eat food that tastes good. Because they’re educated. And they have money.”

As of July 1, 2015, according to Statscan, nearly one in six Canadians—a record 5,780,900 Canadians—was at least 65 years old. The oldest Boomers, born between 1946 and 1965, are starting to enter old folks’ homes.

Long-term care facilities are on the rise. Between 2000 and 2010, there was a 20 per cent increase in Canadians living in homes for the aged. We’re at the dawn of a retirement home boom. You’d better believe the generation that ended a war in Vietnam and changed the flavour of Coke will have something to say about their chocolate pudding.

READ: George Brown College | Toronto, Ont. | Founded 1967

And their main dishes.“You’re seeing a lot more curries and Asian dishes,” says Gary McBlain, regional director of culinary services for BayBridge Senior Living, in Toronto. “They’re looking for food to be healthier. They want to know where it’s coming from, that it’s ethically sourced.”

He’s getting questions from residents about vegan menus and medical marijuana. But the biggest changes are to overall quality. McBlain has been in the business 16 years. In the last decade, he’s seen a growth in retirement homes, and along with it, competition to offer better services. “People are gearing up for the Baby Boomers coming in 2020,” he says. “They’re going to be in their early ’80s, and we’re expecting occupancy to go up.

“The residents are a lot more affluent. With more competition coming on stream, the best way to fill up is to offer fantastic food and be flexible.”

Menus used to be designed by dietitians. It was typical to have one dining time, with pre-made food coming out of a box—from an industrial service—to be heated and served. Now there are à la carte menus and scratch cooking, with kitchen staff reporting to restaurant-trained chefs.

“The business is getting way more sophisticated,” says Eric Wood, a former chef and now recruiter for JRoss Hospitality Recruiters, at the Toronto office.  “The calibre of the chef candidates we are being asked to find for these roles has shifted from having institutional backgrounds to being luxury-hotel trained chefs.”

Cooks at BayBridge start at around $19 an hour, as opposed to the $12 to $14 they’d get in a restaurant. But it’s an even better path later in a chef’s career, when they have five to 10 years’ experience.

“Retirement homes are a good second or third act for a lot of chefs,” says Wood. “Red Seal [certification] is usually a must, and not negotiable. Accounting and base business skills are going to be valuable. Five years of real volume management experience would be the true vector. Coming from a 30-seat resto with good Instagram doesn’t cut it.”

Depending on the size of a facility, a chef could make between $53,000 and $75,000 running a kitchen in a retirement home. That’s compared to the $40,000 to $50,000 a restaurant chef is likely to make after 10 years. More importantly, the corporate environment means 40-hour weeks with benefits, as opposed to 60 to 80 hours without. So it’s suited to a chef who’s ready to have a home/family life.

Young cooks don’t usually care about job factors like security, benefits or reasonable hours, because restaurants are sexy and provide an adrenaline rush. But after five to 10 years on the line, with no savings and no time for family, they are going to want more.

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