Condo residents, from left, Fran Ousley, Don Barr, Edythe Barr, Hela Margulies and Donna Kaalass eat the main course during dinner in Portland. - AP

Green Jell-O won't cut it for boomers

PORTLAND — Nibbling sliced radishes dabbed in European butter and sea salt, and sipping a sparkling white wine, the diners reminisce about their travels— some of it to France, where they might have experienced these foods. Next come mussels in a delicate curried cream sauce, and later an equally exquisite Bavarian cheesecake.

It's all part of a special four-course French dinner — not at a tony Pearl District restaurant, but at Terwilliger Plaza, a retirement condo in downtown Portland.

That's right, a retirement home, what once might have been considered the bastion of shoe-leather pork chops, tasteless instant mashed potatoes and mushy canned green beans. Among the diners is Marian Martinez, who quickly signed up for the extraordinary meal, one of several held during the year.

"I like good food," she says. "It enhances being here."

She came to Terwilliger Plaza 10 months ago at the urging of her sister, Claire Rives, and her sister's husband, George Rives (formerly of Stoel Rives law firm), who also are residents.

Danish-born chef Klaus Monberg's cuisine is among the attractions for Martinez, a retired schoolteacher and principal who moved from Central California.

As at Terwilliger Plaza, today's retirement institutions are upgrading their food to meet a growing demand. More than 1.1 million Americans are in some type of senior housing. That figure is expected to grow as the population of people 65 and older is expected to double in the next 20 years. Having whetted their appetites with fine restaurants and trendy food magazines, boomers won't slip quietly into their golden years putting up with lime Jell-O.

Tonight's guest chef is Portland-area French-cooking teacher Robert Reynolds. He and chef Monberg go back about 25 years, when both owned restaurants in San Francisco. Reynolds recently gave a slide show at Terwilliger Plaza about the foods of the Poitou-Charentes region, on the coast of Western France. Now he and Monberg's staff have to step up to the plate, and the stove, to deliver the goods.

They do, deliciously.

For these events, "We pull out all the stops," Monberg says.

After the mussels comes a moist, roasted free-range chicken in wine sauce, carrot puree and miniature toasts spread with a flavorful mixture of sautéed leeks and minced bacon, goat cheese and cream. For dessert, another regional specialty: an airy, thin layer of Bavarian mousse "cheesecake" in a crepe crust, served with a dab of rhubarb compote.

"I buy locally as much as I possibly can," Monberg says, "and for political reasons as much as nutrition . . . we're trying to go green."

To serve food of this caliber takes a financial commitment from management, Monberg says. "Whoever runs the outfit has to put their money where their mouth is." At this self-governed nonprofit condo, they do.

Monberg "has continually upgraded the food," says Dee Sellner, the condo's CEO and president. "I can't imagine if he was dictated to — 'Meatloaf on Wednesdays.' He loves the freedom."

Monberg meets with representatives from each of the 12 floors to get responses and requests from the 280 residents.

In the restaurant-style dining room, residents and their guests can order off a menu or choose specials such as yakisoba noodle salad with fried tofu and Asian vegetables, Spanish paella or fruit-stuffed pork loin with crisp polenta. The tab goes on the resident's monthly bill.

With a "huge groundswell in long-term care, hospitality service is having to borrow from the restaurant world," says Linda Kirschbaum, director of assisted living for Oregon Health Care Association, a trade association that oversees almost 600 outlets, which care for more than 40,000 senior citizens in Oregon. Food service can be the most highly praised or criticized aspect of senior care, she says.

"Residents look forward to meals. We're trying to raise the bar."

That's a big challenge for people such as Marilyn Taylor, director of food services for Holiday Retirement Corp., based in Salem. She oversees food operations for its 311 facilities throughout the United States (including 12 in Oregon and 16 in Washington), Canada, Europe and soon, Australia. Collectively, they prepare 139,000 meals a day.

As with many assisted and independent living centers, the company's dining room has a set rotating seasonal menu, with another half-dozen alternatives if diners aren't crazy about that day's entrees.

When Taylor came aboard 10 years ago from Oregon Health & Science University, meals were mainly from canned food, she says. But since then, particularly in the past two years, the company has switched to fresh food prepared with less frying, more steaming and without transfats.

"We're 98 percent scratch cooking," Taylor says. The kitchens bake all their own breads, and have switched to whole grains.

Another change in the industry is the skill of the chefs. In contrast to 10 years ago, when most were self-taught cooks, 60 percent of Holiday's chefs are formally trained, 18 percent at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., the hospitality industry's big player.

In the past, Taylor says, chefs bypassed cooking at retirement facilities.

"A lot equated them with (working in) nursing homes or prisons."

She feels strongly that's one thing she's accomplished in her tenure: attracting professionals who see that they can offer gracious dining. And this type of work is a plus for those who want a home life, too, Taylor says, unlike the nighttime hours required at regular restaurants.

For those such as Monberg, there are other bonuses.

"It's fun," he says. "With this population, when you please them, they'll talk about it for weeks. That's something you don't often find."

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