Chris Dean, Head of Dining Services at Sunrise and Gracewell for the last four and a half years, talks to Sue Dunk about the value of hiring restaurant-trained chefs, buying British and dining as a social experience
Asked what would be the mission statement for the dining services at Sunrise Senior Living communities and Gracewell Healthcare homes, Chris Dean has no hesitation in replying: “Dignity in dining.”
Putting residents first clearly contributes to the success of this multi award winning care provider. “As a group Sunrise and Gracewell will never sacrifice quality for nutrition – because we simply don’t need to,” says Chris. “Instead we encourage our chefs to be innovative, to experiment and to get out of the kitchen and talk to the residents.
“Resident feedback really is the key to success. Our residents know what they like and it is our job to do all we can to cater for them.”
Hiring restaurant-trained chefs is fundamental to both resident satisfaction and the success of the group, says Chris. “These are people who are used to providing quality meals and can live up to our high expectations.”
In fact, he says, they aim to recruit most of their chefs from the restaurant/hotel sector “because our residents expect the best and have dined in the best restaurants all their life, so why should that stop when they move into one of our homes?” Chris believes that it’s a win:win for all concerned: “It’s great for the chef’s quality of life too, working alternate weekends and rarely finishing later than 7pm. Where else in the hospitality market can a chef say they work those hours! And they still get to cook high quality food, with fully equipped high class kitchens using the best ingredients.”
So having attracted and signed up the right calibre of chef the next stage is to make sure training and career development opportunities are offered in order to retain these key members of staff.
“We have developed our own dysphagia training which we have made mandatory for all chefs working in our care homes,” explains Chris. “We also offer NVQ training for those wanting to further develop their skills.
“We recently introduced a cluster support role to allow for a step up from the head chef position, and that has been instrumental in nurturing our new stars when they come into our business to settle in and develop.”
We’ve already touched on the fact that Sunrise and Gracewell hospitality teams are no strangers to awards, regularly bringing home trophies for the quality of their meals and their approach to nutrition and hydration. Chris regards these opportunities as an essential part of nurturing the kitchen teams, and actively encourages participation. One of the annual competitions they always seem to do well in is the NACC Care Chef of the Year contest and, as one of the judges at last year’s event, I can confirm that the standards are extremely high at this event and the quality of the meals produced amazing. “We encourage our chefs to challenge themselves and entering competitions like NACC Chef of the Year allows them to do this,” he says.
“It’s also a great opportunity to get the residents involved and excited. We find that the residents love to support their home’s chef and taste test the dishes they submit!”
And there it is again, that desire to engage with the residents and help them to enjoy every mealtime. Chris knows how important the dining experience is – not just for those living in the homes already but for anyone considering moving in. “The dining experience for a resident has a huge impact on their lives and should be carefully considered when choosing a care home.
“Dining isn’t just about the food you eat, it has an impact on a resident’s health and on their social life. We often forget that dining is a social experience and an environment which embraces this is important to maintain mental health. This is why we have a bistro in our care homes where residents, family and friends can all eat together if they choose.”
Chris readily admits that the feedback from residents is what he finds most rewarding about his job. “Our chefs are cooking in our residents’ home and it’s important that we get things right by balancing nutrition with enjoyment. Getting great feedback lets us know that we are succeeding and gives everyone a big sense of accomplishment.”
So how exactly is satisfaction monitored? “Prior to any menu change we survey our residents at every home,” explains Chris. “We also have a comment book which is monitored by the care team and the head chefs address any issues raised.
“We also hold monthly dining meetings with the residents in every home which again allows for plenty of feedback on the menus plus additional requests.”
Taking note of feedback isn’t the only way the residents influence the menus. “We create a five-week menu cycle twice a year based on conversations we have with residents about their likes and dislikes alongside the results of the survey which is sent out at the end of each cycle. We do allow our chefs to carry out local variation but find that the menus are usually 90% maintained, with the variance coming from other dishes on our menu system.”
There is professional input too, as Chris goes on to explain. “We also involve a small group with this process, including our Head of Nutrition & Hydration Sophie Murray, to ensure we haven’t missed a trick with our residents’ wellbeing.”
The creation of this role, which Sophie stepped into three and a half years ago, demonstrates the importance Sunrise and Gracewell place on this aspect of residents’ wellbeing. “Dining isn’t just about putting food on plates. Our residents should enjoy the food they eat and it should complement their care plans,” says Chris. “Having a dedicated Head of Nutrition & Hydration allows us to work together and create a menu which balances nutritious food with delicious food.” Sophie assists with all menu planning, new initiatives and purchasing decisions around food.
One of Chris’s main achievements during his time at Sunrise has been to introduce a menu planning system that includes the nutritional and allergen breakdowns of every recipe, as well as costs, which helps to maintain consistency across the group. “Having all the recipes on one system means we have all the nutrition, allergen and costing information available to all to keep everything in order.”
In his current role as Director of Procurement, Chris – who amassed 10 years of procurement experience with Pelican Procurement prior to joining Sunrise – has purchasing responsibility for 45 homes (“and rising”). Does the power of group procurement have a positive impact on the quality of the ingredients available to the chefs, I wondered? “It makes a massive difference,” admits Chris. “It allows us to drive down pricing which enables us to spend more money on other items for our residents.”
Buying British is something which is dear to his heart. “Buying locally is something we try to do as much as possible. Where we can’t buy locally, we always aim to buy British and we are a huge supporter of the Love British Food campaign.
“We also support innovative new British products – for example we were the first care group to support NEMI milk, which is enriched with selenium to help your immune system and is the only milk which can claim added health benefits.”
Chris has been in the catering sector all his working life, having set up his own catering company at the age of 20, then opening and running his own restaurant in Wimbledon for 10 years prior to going into procurement. Having “fallen in love” with the care sector in the early days of supporting Sunrise Senior Living with purchases, he is set on remaining in the sector. “Care and dining is evolving and needs to stay up to date with our residents’ needs and expectations, and like restaurants you can’t stand still. I enjoy this job, its variety and the good that it brings.”
The job is not without its challenges, though. “Like everyone in the sector we can find ourselves having to balance budgets with quality,” he says. “We also have to do this across both Sunrise Senior Living and Gracewell Healthcare, which operate under one umbrella company but which have two distinct brands and styles. Logistically this can be a bit of a challenge, but it definitely helps that both brands have providing nutritious, delicious and quality food at the centre of all the work we do.”
Chris loves the fact that “every day is different and every day is busy”, and although his job involves lots of emails and conference calls he also makes time to get out to the Sunrise communities and Gracewell homes as often as possible. “It’s by visiting the homes, meeting with the team there and listening to the residents that we can make a real difference,” he says.
At home, Chris enjoys getting hands-on in the kitchen, but as his wife also loves to cook the pair of them usually end up cooking together. His favourite meal? “Tapas – as I love a little bit of everything!”