Posted by Patrick Maness
For Michael Mills, being a Chef is like being called to the ministry. As Executive Chef at Jennings Center for Older Adults in Garfield Heights, OH, Mills said he is “blessed to serve people the last meals of their lives.”
That’s because he provides food for people in apartments, short-term rehabilitation, adult day services, assisted living, and long-term care. “For some of these people, mealtime is the thing they look forward to the most. This isn’t just a job to me,” said Mills. “It’s a ministry.”
But it didn’t all start out as such a noble mission—it was just a job working at a local pizza place. As a young dishwasher, Mills noticed that everyone listened to the head cook. “He was in charge. Everyone did what he told them to do. I wanted to be like him,” said Mills.
That idea planted the seed with him, and so he went on to another restaurant in Maine, which took him to Florida for a cooking apprenticeship and some on-the-job training. After working in a variety of different types of restaurants and different styles of cuisines, Mills later ended up working for a large catering company in Ohio, where he thought he would stay. But fate took him in a different direction.
A New Mission
Mills used to make weekly visits to his uncle, who was in hospice care. After several visits, he knew that he wanted to do more. “I thought if there was anything I can do to help these people, I’d do it in a minute,” said Mills. When the opportunity to work at Jennings presented itself, Mills did not hesitate.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing in the beginning. “When I first came to Jennings, they’d never had a Chef before. I think some people didn’t know why we needed one, and I felt like I had to prove myself. Looking back, I would have taken a little bit more time to ease into the job,” he said. But after 14 years, it’s clear he’s won over both staff and residents.
Mills said that while individuals living in assisted living, nursing homes and other supportive environments are much different from the general public, one thing remains the same. “Food is very important to everybody. Food makes people happy. I like making people happy with food,” he said.
The Future of Senior Living Foodservice
Gone are the days that senior residences offer a strict three-meals-a-day dining plan. Today, they’ve gone from formal, sit-down dining halls to more casual, café-style dining.
Residents at Jennings dine on homemade turkey and chicken pot pies, stuffed cabbage and breaded pork chops. Here the food is prepared in one central kitchen, but equipment like drop-in steam tables, soup rethermalizers, warming cabinets, and buffet stations help create this new way of dining. Mills said that some organizations have cocktail bars where people can enjoy a cocktail and a few appetizers. “The importance of foodservice for older adults cannot be ignored. As the Baby Boomer generation ages into retirement, they are demanding more choices, more quality and better ideas,” said Mills.
This focus on quality is reflected throughout his department, from the name (it’s called “culinary services” now) to the Chef’s hat and Chef Whites that he wears every day.
Working with older adults is not for everyone. It can be emotionally challenging, said Mills. “But I am blessed to do what I do. It’s my pleasure to make their days the best they can be,” said Mills.