When one thinks of institutional cooking, visions of mystery meat, endless casseroles and bland cooking come to mind.
The residents of Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco, however, get to enjoy food that is “especially good” according to 87-year-old Jerry Newhaus, who has resided at the assisted-living facility for three years.
Newhaus and other residents give credit for their fresh, tasty and abundant choices to Rhoda Goldman Plaza food and beverage director Corey Weiner and her staff.
A graduate from the Culinary Institute of America in 1983, Weiner is the only head chef that RGP has ever known. The facility recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, and Weiner has been there from the very start in 2000.
“She does everything in a special and nice way, she offers a big variety, and she listens to the people and what they want,” Newhaus said.
Newhaus said he heard about Weiner’s cooking from some of his friends who lived at the Stratford in Palo Alto, where Weiner used to work.
“To this day, our friends and all the old-timers there still want her to come back,” Newhaus said. “That’s how good she is.”
Weiner said the key to her success — in addition to offering well-presented fresh and flavorful cuisine — is listening to what the residents want. So during meals, she goes table to table to elicit comments.
“I hear feedback all the time, and I consider that a very important part of my job,” she said. “I want to know what people are eating, how they’re being served, and I want to know if things are working. When they’re happy, I’m happy, and when they’re not happy, I’m not happy. [They] are a very vocal group, and they let me know immediately.”
Rhoda Goldman Plaza’s dining room feels more like a restaurant, with the space divided into a half-dozen smaller rooms, smaller tables and upholstered booths. The menu offers numerous choices, with both a regular and alternative menu featuring main courses, as well as soups, salads and side dishes. Orders are taken by waiters and waitresses and served individually.
The restaurant-like setting and upscale cuisine were deliberate choices from RGP’s inception.
“I was hired with a very clear message — that they wanted ‘Ritz Carlton kosher.’ That’s what they wanted,” Weiner said. “While I don’t know if it’s Ritz Carlton, that was my dictum, so I set out to do the best I could, and that’s what we try to do.”
Weiner said RGP makes most of its food from scratch. “We buy only the few things we don’t have the space to produce,” she said. “We like to be as local as we can, as fresh as we can, and everything is done by hand.”
Keeping a sense of humor is also important, Weiner believes — it helps liven up the residents’ day. Her menu always contains a little joke for the residents, which on a recent day read: “If the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then knishes will get there faster and stay there longer.”
Rhoda Goldman Plaza’s kitchen is kosher, and though cooking under the dietary laws was a new experience to Weiner, she took the challenge head-on.
“I learned kosher as trial by fire — a lot of research,” she said. “I was very new to kosher, and so products were hard to come by in the beginning. I spent a lot of time trying to find things I could use, and so over the years, we’ve established really good sources, and that’s helped us expand our repertoire.”
Weiner also had to teach her staff how to cook both kosher and Jewish cuisine, and that finding good chefs wasn’t easy. “We opened in the middle of the dot-com boom,” she recalled. But if they were novices back then, they aren’t any more, Weiner added. “As they’ve grown, the menu grows and their skill level grows.”
Facing nutritional needs that can be challenging, Weiner has learned how to offer a cuisine that takes into account the residents’ special requirements.
“As a group, seniors are diverse, but they also have tendencies to have different needs,” she said.
Pointing to “swallowing issues, chewing issues, all kinds of issues,” Weiner said, “I think my food needs to be softer and it needs to be moister. But there are also people who really love crunch, so it’s kind of all over the map.”
The special attention Weiner gives her cuisine doesn’t go unnoticed by the residents, especially those who have other experiences to compare it to.
“I’d previously lived in [another] retirement residence, and they didn’t really care what they served us,” said 85-year-old Florence Cooper, who recently moved into Rhoda Goldman Plaza. “It was all the wrong things for people our age. Here, it’s very healthful, and I love the variety and the different ethnicities of the food they serve — it’s just good cooking.”