By Leon A Smith
January 12, 2011
As someone who runs a large care home for older members of the Jewish community, I find myself with a myriad of different responsibilities and matters that need dealing with on a day to day basis. There is however an all pervading theme which runs through life at Nightingale. We care for 200 people and 75% of them are female. They are all Jewish. What particular subject might be of interest to them other than food? At the risk of incurring the wrath of some of our residents, I have every confidence in saying that the food at Nightingale is very good. Not haute cuisine, not nouvelle cuisine, not The Wolsey or The Ivy – but simply very good!
My responsibility is to ensure that the food served is nutritious, varied and visually appetising on the plate. During the many years that I have been running this Home, there are many things which I have achieved and which I am very proud of. However, making all of our residents happy all of the time when it comes to food is something I have simply failed in. Whether this is due to my own personal shortcomings and/or not, I am not quite sure. One of the great difficulties, of course, is trying to be all things to all people. Many of our residents, whose average age is 89, are very keen on traditional Haimisher Jewish food – chopped liver, egg and onion, kneidlach, salt beef, tzimmas, latkes, cholent – you get the idea!
Other residents are not so keen on only eating traditional Jewish food. They want their dining experience to be a little bit different to Blooms. They do not necessarily want Kosher Chinese – the vast majority of them do not want Sephardi dishes. They, however, do want something which (dare I say) can be a little bit more interesting than traditional Jewish fare. So some people want Haimisher food, some people want a wider choice.
And then there’s another problem: Food is of course totally subjective. How often have any of us been to a restaurant and thought we have had an awful meal, only to be told by friends that they had the most fantastic meal and/or even worse, how many times have we been to a restaurant and one person has found their meal to be delicious and the other not so delicious. Imagine providing chicken soup and kneidlach on a Friday night for 200 Jewish people. For some the soup will be too salty, for others it will not be salty enough. For some kneidlach will be too hard, for others it will be too soft. Others will say why are we having kneidlach, why can’t we have lochsen. Fried gefilte fish tends to be generally popular but depending on where one’s antecedents came from – be it Latvia, Russia, Poland, it’s quite likely that the ingredients will be different. Can one make gefilte fish without carrot? For some people adding carrot is heresy! And to our chefs, who do an incredible job under very difficult circumstances, none of them have been brought up with Jewish food and none of them therefore know for sure exactly what kneidlach should taste like and/or what it’s texture should be. It’s one thing to faithfully follow a recipe in an Evelyn Rose cookbook – but it’s quite another to really really know and feel just what it should taste like and just what it’s texture should be.
Many of our residents feel that they could probably teach the chefs a thing or two and indeed they probably could – not however by giving a recipe. First of all many of our residents would not be in a position to give precise details of quantities of various ingredients and secondly a recipe which works well for a family of four does not necessarily work as well when multiplied up for 200 people. Nevertheless, we do whatever we can to ensure that our chefs can learn from our extremely knowledgeable and very experienced residents.
Food is important. The dining experience is important. And I guess the time that I should really start worrying is when residents stop complaining about the food – or at least commenting on it. There’s nothing like healthy criticism which we must always accept in good faith – or at least not accept with a pinch of salt!