Nestled on the outskirts of picturesque medieval market town Shrewsbury, The Uplands is a family-owned care home where residents are encouraged to think of the kitchen team as their own private chefs. Sue Dunk paid a visit.
The quality of the home cooking at The Uplands is a big attraction for residents, their families, Day Resource Centre users and potential new residents too.
“This is their home: they can pretty much have whatever they want,” says Catering Manager Nikki Burton. “They only have to ask, and we will do all we can to put it on the menu.”
Nikki moved from the pub/restaurant sector to care catering when she joined Marches Care as a cook at its original 31-bed Dorrington nursing home in 2001. She had trained under Shropshire’s culinary star John Williams, a Master Chef of Great Britain: “I learnt a lot about standards and presentation from John,” she says. The legacy of this training is that Nikki is meticulous about the quality of everything her team prepares. “If it’s not good enough for us, why would we send it out of the kitchen?”
Having progressed to the role of catering manager when the previous incumbent left in 2004, Nikki headed up the kitchen team when Marches Care opened The Uplands care home in 2007 and loves enriching the lives of the 81 residents and Day Centre users there. “Care catering has its challenges: it’s very different to cooking in a pub or restaurant, where you never know how many you’ll get in and the food is very much ‘there and then’ – the adrenalin rush is greater. In a care home you could be cooking three or four variations of a lasagne depending on residents’ preferences or dietary needs, so you have to be very organised for one thing.
“At The Uplands it’s all about balancing nutritional needs alongside what the residents want to eat: we are their private chefs, in effect, cooking for them in their own home.”
Nikki and I were chatting in Ruth’s Room, a lovely bright and airy day room which opens directly onto a paved patio area with picnic benches, where members of The Uplands community (staff as well as residents and their visitors) can enjoy an al fresco meal, snack or drink when the weather is clement. The room is named after one of the first residents to move into the new facility when the Dorrington residents were given the opportunity to transfer over to The Uplands. “Ruth really enjoyed spending time in this room with her family,” says Nikki.
With its traditional dresser, and walls depicting Shrewsbury’s historic timber-framed buildings and Clive of India statue, you could be sitting in an old-fashioned tearoom in the heart of the town square. It’s an ideal setting for the monthly afternoon tea events Nikki puts on for residents and their visitors. “We’re also planning a special Gentlemen’s Afternoon Tea for Fathers’ Day and a Wimbledon Afternoon Tea.”
My visit was just a couple of days after the royal wedding, which The Uplands had celebrated in style, with families and friends joining in. “Each of our four units – Cory, Gough, Meole and Dorrington – had its own theme with decorations to match; we made a cake for each unit which the residents decorated,” says Nikki. “People were coming in from 11am; they had prosecco on arrival, then stayed to enjoy a buffet lunch.”
The home is no stranger to themed events and special celebrations. “Last year we had a marquee in the car park and marked our 10-year anniversary with a beach-themed day,” says Nikki. “We recently hosted a wedding vow renewal for a couple who have been married for 30 years, and we have been asked to cater for an 80th birthday party in August.” Indeed Ruth had enjoyed a “massive” family party for her 100th.
Relatives are also welcome to join residents for meals any time, and there’s no charge. “It’s all part of creating that home-from-home atmosphere,” says Nikki.
The eight-week rolling menu officially changes seasonally, although in fact there are more frequent changes as requests and suggestions are accommodated. Nikki is predominantly in charge of writing the menus but is more than happy for other members of her team to step up. “Just the other week I asked one of the girls in the kitchen to come up with some new ideas. They’re cooking the food and are as much a part of it as I am – it’s nice for them to try different things, it keeps everyone fresh.”
Nikki says that most of the residents who have been with them a while are “pretty traditional” in their tastes: they love their roast dinners, simple bakes and anything with custard, and there was “uproar” when she once had the audacity to leave fish and chips off the menu on a Friday!
She is beginning to notice, however, that the slightly younger generation starting to use the service favours pasta dishes and spicier foods: “Tastes are becoming a bit more adventurous.”
When it comes to special diets the greatest requirement is for texture modified foods, which currently around a quarter of the residents require. “I went on a course last year,” says Nikki, “and it was really interesting to see how you can make, say, a curry suitable for a purée diet.” The team uses ice cream scoops or ramekins to enhance presentation of the separate elements of the meal as they have found with moulds that it’s not easy to get the food out of the mould quickly enough to serve the meal at optimum temperature.
Again, though, individual likes are taken into account. “One gent used to like a Belgian bun but had had to forgo that pleasure once he was on a purée diet. I asked his wife to bring one in and we puréed it down then reconstructed it to make it look like a Belgian bun again: he and his wife were over the moon!
“If we have to work a little bit harder to give our residents what they want then that’s what we do,” says Nikki.
After a breakfast consisting of anything from cereal and toast to yoghurt, prunes or any variation on a Full English, lunch is the main meal of the day. “We always have the option of a meat, vegetarian and salmon or cod main meal choice, boiled and mashed potato, at least two veg and two desserts (warm or cold) plus ice cream or fruit salad,” explains Nikki. “Then there’s the alternative menu, with things like beans on toast, jacket potatoes, omelettes, salads and sandwiches.”
Cake – freshly baked each day – is served mid-afternoon, then at teatime there’s a choice of soup, a hot meal such as corned beef hash or egg and chips, plus the alternatives again; one prepared dessert, ice cream, fruit salad and cheese and biscuits.
“Teatime is slightly harder to cook for,” says Nikki. “At lunchtime the residents tend to go for the main choices but at teatime there seem to be more alternatives requested.” Even so the selections tend to follow traditional lines. “Tuna and beans in a jacket potato or tuna omelette is about as bizarre as it gets!”
In terms of the mechanics of choosing from the menu, two of the kitchen staff go round in the afternoon asking residents what they would like to eat the following day, except for those living with dementia (approximately 40 out of the 81): “For these residents we do enough of each option so they can choose there and then, as the carers are dishing up,” says Nikki.
All the meals are freshly prepared, using locally sourced produce where possible. Supporting local producers was very important to the founders of Marches Care, Mr and Mrs West, and continues to be important to daughter Mandy Thorn, who is now Chairman of the family run business, Nikki tells me. “We have used the same local butcher since he started out with a little market stall. We also get our fruit and veg from a local company, and our eggs are local too.”
The Uplands also boasts a herb garden adjacent to the kitchen, and a garden area outside one of the dementia units where residents regularly grow the likes of leeks, pumpkins, tomatoes and strawberries.
Other food-related activities include a baking club, minibus trips to local garden centres for afternoon tea, and Taster Days. “For Chinese New Year, for example, we got the chopsticks out and encouraged everyone to get stuck into a variety of Chinese dishes,” says Nikki. “These are very popular with the residents – they give them a change from the routine.”
Having discovered care catering 17 years ago Nikki is very happy with her lot and can’t imagine moving on. “I love my job, love the company I work for and I have a fantastic team in the kitchen,” she enthuses. In fact she can’t praise the rest of the team highly enough and really enjoys training the young recruits to a standard of competency that enables them to take over if she’s not around. “They are the most special thing about my role here: I could go away for the rest of the day and they would just get on with it.”
The ethos that everyone works together as a team to provide the residents with great tasting, nutritious and appetising food obviously works well as there has been very little staff turnover in the kitchen.
Of the nine catering staff most have been at The Uplands for seven to 10 years. In the last year one young lady left to emigrate to Australia, but even she hasn’t really gone as she is still in touch and Nikki is about to put on a Spanish theme day in her honour!
The last word goes to Mandy, who took on the role of Chairman earlier this year: “I’m very proud of Nikki and her amazing team in our kitchen.”