Eating Healthy and Loving It at the Verandah!
Tasty, healthy food is something the lucky residents of The Verandah Retirement Community and Assisted Living in Lake Charles look forward to every day. And the man behind the delicious fare is their executive chef, Michael Bruney.
Only 27, Bruney, a Lake Charles native, spent 10 years at the Harlequin Restaurant honing his craft before coming to the Verandah on the recommendation of a friend who held the lead position in the kitchen. As luck would have it, his friend soon found another job, and Bruney was able to step into the chef’s role.
It’s obvious that Bruney had to make some changes to his cooking style. The rich creams and sauces of the Harlequin won’t do in a community of seniors. But Bruney sees it as an opportunity as opposed to a challenge.
Control the Salt
“There are a lot of things that are done differently here, compared to a normal restaurant,” he explains. “First of all, we have to control the salt content of our food since so many of our residents have high blood pressure. But cooking with low or no salt can leave food bland and tasteless.”
There are several ways to remedy the situation. “Use of aromatics is key,” Bruney continues. “In this part of the world, we use the ‘Cajun Trinity’: onions, bell peppers and celery for our soups, stews and sauces. They add deep, rich flavors we can build on.”
Bruney says making their own stock is the way to go. “Store-bought stocks and broths are usually packed with sodium and other additives. When we make our own, we control the contents. And homemade stocks have tons more flavor than store brands. They take minimal effort to prepare and last for months!”
According to Bruney, most of the sodium Americans ingest does not come from saltshakers, as we would imagine, but instead, from both processed and canned food. “To combat this, we simply use the highest quality and freshest ingredients possible and make everything from scratch.”
One of the easiest ways to combat blandness in low-sodium food is by using ingredients with strong flavors, such as wine, vinegar, garlic, fresh herbs, etc. “And studies show that items such as vinegar and garlic have their own health benefits,” Bruney explains. “For example, apple cider vinegar has been shown to lower blood sugar levels, which is critical in our diabetic residents.”
Keep it Heart-Healthy
Heart health is a major concern for all adults, especially seniors. “But not all fats are bad for you,” Bruney points out. “Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, in moderation, can raise good cholesterol and lower bad cholesterol, which helps protect against heart disease.”
There are various ways the Verandah kitchen helps limits “bad” fats while retaining flavor. “A healthy alternative to cooking with butter or lard is flavored olive oils,” Bruney says. “Liz Fuselier, owner of Sassy Oil and Vinegar, provides us with different infused olive oils that helps build flavor in our dishes with adding trans or saturated fats.”
Heavy creams must also be replaced. “One way we add creaminess to soups without adding the fat is by adding potatoes or rice instead of heavy cream or half and half,” Bruney says. “Once cooked and pureed, the soup or bisque will have a wonderful creaminess without all of the unwanted fat.”
Protein selection is very important in a heart-healthy diet.
Bruney points out that salmon, a “frequent flier” on their menu, is high in flavor and also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which can help reduce heart disease. Less flavorful options, such as boneless, skinless chicken breasts, are enhanced with various flavor additives such as marinades and sauces.
“A popular dish we make is a hummus-crusted chicken breast,” Bruney says. “It’s covered with roasted red pepper hummus which we roast in the oven. Healthy, delicious and a little something different!”
Other Dietary Restrictions
Some residents have other dietary restrictions, such as diabetes. “Extra fat in the diet can make your body more resistant to the action of insulin, so we try to limit the fat we serve each resident using the various techniques we’ve already discussed,” Bruney explains. “The most difficult dilemma I find as a chef cooking for diabetics is dessert. Seniors tend to retain their ability to distinguish sweet tastes the longest, which can cause them to over-indulge in sugary foods. They can also be very critical of sugar-free foods or desserts made with sugar substitutes. To resolve this, we always offer our residents fresh fruit options and a couple of sugar-free options such as ice cream and Jello.”
Some residents are gluten-sensitive. “And one woman has celiac disease, which means that if she ingests gluten, it can seriously impact her health. To combat this, we use flour substitutes such as rice flour, corn flour, and flaxseed meal whenever we can to give these residents more options.”
Black pepper can cause digestive issues and discomfort in seniors, so Bruney says they try to use red pepper, in moderation, whenever possible.
The Joy of Cooking
It’s obvious that Bruney loves what he does, and he’s constantly striving to do more and learn more. “You know, I’m not classically trained,” he points out. “I went to McNeese for engineering. But I was getting bored, so I decided to take a year off in my senior year. I never went back.”
Instead, he found his calling in the food service industry, and has never looked back. But he pushes himself harder because he did not attend culinary school. “I’m always watching cooking videos. As soon as I get home, I turn on the Food Network. My girlfriend thinks I’m obsessed. I guess I am!” he laughs.
Bruney says he spends a lot of his time on menu selection, which means talking to the residents to find out what they like—and don’t like. “We have monthly meetings where residents can voice their opinions with the food program and tell us what they would like to see on the upcoming menus. They’re brutally honest with me. If they don’t like something, they’ll tell you!”
He especially has to stay on his toes since we are in Southwest Louisiana, and there are a lot of good cooks sitting at his tables.
“Let’s face it!” he laughs. “I’m cooking for everyone’s Grandma!”
Everyone is a good cook. Let’s face it; I’m cooking for everyone’s grandma!