Local Chefs Win Gold as Providence Life Services sweeps the AHF Culinary Challenge

ELMHURST, Ill. (November 2011) – This is not your father’s healthcare food. Or maybe it is — if your father lives at Village Woods, a retirement and assisted living community in Crete, Illinois. Kevin Risner is the Executive Chef there, and he just proved his chops by winning the gold medal at the AHF Chicago-Midwest Chapter’s Culinary Challenge on Friday, November 18.

With a total 186 out of 180 points (including 15 “extra credit” points for emailing their recipe ahead of time), Team Providence took the gold. The Garlands of Barrington won silver, and Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare earned bronze. Spectators were also allowed to cast votes for the People’s Choice Award, and Providence won that certificate as well.

AHF (Association for Healthcare Foodservice) is on a mission to eliminate the stigma of “hospital food.” Member organizations all use self-operated foodservice, as opposed to contracting or outsourcing dining services to an outside management group. “Keeping dining in-house,” says Mark Trnka, “allows greater creativity and flexibility, which leads to higher customer satisfaction.” Mark is the Vice President of Support Services at Providence Life Services, the parent company of Village Woods. He supervises Kevin as well as chefs at eight other Providence retirement communities and nursing homes in Illinois and Michigan. “In the end, we want our residents to get the nutrition they need, and we want them to look forward to mealtimes!”

Mark is also president of the Chicago-Midwest Chapter of AHF, and after seeing culinary competitions at the group’s national conferences, he wondered if such a challenge would be good at the chapter level. The chapter leadership agreed, and an invitation was sent to member organizations. Mark forwarded the invitation to his chefs and asked who would be interested in participating. Kevin was one of the first to respond.

“I’ve been involved in cooking competitions since I was 16,” he explains. “I’ve actually been cooking since I was 6.” He grew up in a family of all sisters, and he didn’t like washing dishes, so he volunteered to cook if they would clean up. “I never washed a dish,” he smiles. Kevin went on to enroll in the Chef’s Training Program at Washburne Trade School in Chicago, and from that point achieved American Culinary Federation certification. He served as Executive Chef at Idlewild Country Club in Flossmoor, Illinois, for 20 years.

When that job was downsized, Kevin got a call from Tom Corley, a Washburne classmate. Tom was serving as Executive Chef at Providence Life Services’ corporate office in Tinley Park. He let Kevin know about a possible opening at Village Woods, and Kevin got the job. He sees a lot of similarities between the country club and Village Woods: “You get the same, repeat clientele, day after day, and you get to know their preferences and needs. Of course, in this setting, there are more health considerations and cost considerations that factor into the meals, but I enjoy the challenge.” Kevin believes in customer service and will do whatever he can to make dining enjoyable for his residents — de-seeding tomatoes for people with diverticulitis, coming up with special recipes for a woman allergic to onions, thinking of creative alternatives to high-fat foods. He loves to improvise.

Tom, who used to work at the Café Royal and the Signature Room in Chicago, appreciates the change in pace from restaurant life. “Restaurant hours make it difficult to raise a family, and it’s a fast-paced, high-stress environment,” he says. At Providence Life Services he feeds and cleans up after 40-50 people on a typical day, with the occasional special event that requires special food and special settings. The predictable schedule allows him to spend evenings and weekends with his family — or coaching girls basketball.

Tom does not consider himself much of a competitor, but when Kevin asked him to assist with the AHF Culinary Challenge, he agreed. The two had worked together before, and they looked forward to collaborating again.

Contestants were informed 48 hours before the competition that the specified protein would be boneless, skin-on duck breast. Teams would choose how to prepare it and what sides (a vegetable and a starch) they would serve with it. They were given an hour and 15 minutes to prepare and plate four meals — one for each judge, and one for display.

Providence Life Services competed against teams from Little Company of Mary Hospital, Saints Mary and Elizabeth Medical Center, The Garlands of Barrington, and Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare, who hosted the event at their new facility. Both Kevin and Tom were confident, but not over-confident, and very respectful of their competition. The day before the challenge, Tom projected, “I think if we come prepared and focused, good things will come our way.” And Kevin stressed the need for “improvision”: “There are so many variable factors in a food preparation situation that a good chef needs to be able to think on his feet. You need a good core education, but we all have that, so what really makes the difference is your ability to improvise.”

Preparation, focus, and improvision came together for the Providence team, and they won the judges’ respect and the people’s praise. Kevin’s recipe called for trimming the duck skin and wrapping the breast in thin slices of potato before cooking, to reduce the fat content of the dish while maintaining a crispy outer texture and flavor. Judge Gerald White of Plate Magazine called this decision “outstandingly creative.”

With a total 186 out of 180 points (including 15 “extra credit” points for emailing their recipe ahead of time), Team Providence took the gold. The Garlands of Barrington won silver, and Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare earned bronze. Spectators were also allowed to cast votes for the People’s Choice Award, and Providence won that certificate as well.

Culinary Challenges like this create excitement and interest, and Providence hopes to benefit from that. “We believe people may be more likely to choose a healthcare or retirement community where they know the food is good,” says Mark. “And our food is good! Kevin and Tom did a great job at the challenge, and I’m proud of them. But that’s the standard of service they offer our clients every day. And I’m even prouder of that.”

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