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Josef Keller: A Chef’s Second Act

Former Josef's Restaurant chef now heading Meals on Wheels

Walking around his new kitchen, arms folded over a navy sweater vest, Chef Josef Keller sniffs at the air. “Smell that,” he says pointing around the expansive space with his nose. “It smells like a restaurant kitchen.”

More recognizable in a chef’s jacket than his street clothes, the 57-year-old toque is a Santa Rosa culinary fixture, running longtime white tablecloth restaurants La Provence and Josef’s in Santa Rosa. And though he retired from the commercial restaurant business in 2009, there’s no doubt the 30-year restaurant veteran knows what a kitchen should smell like.

“Institutional” is exactly what it shouldn’t smell like, said Keller, who was asked in January 2011 to overhaul the kitchen and menus of one of the largest meal-providers in the county, The Council on Aging’s Meals on Wheels.  The massive institutional food preparation and delivery system provides nearly 1,000 meals a day to senior citizens throughout the county.

Keller’s challenge: Making the practical, nutritional food of Meals on Wheels more, well, palatable. With a local focus on fresh, local foods and an evolving demographic of Baby Boomer seniors joining the donation-based food delivery program, the organization wanted its meals to be more than just sustenance. That meant cost-efficient, but good quality food with more eye appeal.

In other words, food that looked and smelled like it came from a restaurant kitchen rather than an industrial one.

“Institutional food doesn’t have to taste bad,” Keller said.  Walking into the massive food prep and storage hangar that also serves as the county’s central emergency kitchen, the first thing he noticed when he came to the kitchen in January was vats of boiled meat.

“They had this huge skillet, and they just used to overcook everything in boiling water,” he said with a sigh. “And the recipes were old. There were no spices. That isn’t how we do it in a restaurant,” said Keller.  Working with the staff dietitians, the French-trained chef incorporated braising, sauteing and low-sodium spices like ginger and mustard to add flavor to the meals.

Derby Days is Meals on Wheels’ biggest fundraiser of the year, held this year on May 7, 2011 at Sonoma-Cutrer Winery. The gala event features a four-course gourmet luncheon prepared by French Garden Executive Chef Patrick Quillec, Doug Richey of Santi, Dustin Valette of Dry Creek Kitchen, Josh Ash & Co pastry chef Casey Stone and Chef Josef Keller. A live auction is hosted by KZST’s Brent Farris. For more details, councilonaging.org.

“I told them, ‘As long as you use my name, you have to cook the way I want,’” said Keller.

On the menu now are dishes like chicken curry with basmati rice with pineapple; chicken Marsala with whole wheat pasta, Beef Stroganoff with summer squash, pork loin with mustard sauce and seasoned barley or fish with lime and cilantro.  There are also traditional favorites like tuna casserole and turkey meatloaf as well as vegetarian meals. The kitchen also prepares specialized meals for dialysis patients for $5 per meal.

With the improved menu, Keller hopes to expand the program’s reach even further by offering a food delivery service to paying customers – affordable comfort food for caregivers, those just out of the hospital, ill spouses or individuals who otherwise don’t qualify for the Meals on Wheels program.

With a fixed $2.60 food cost per meal, it’s no small challenge to use as much locally sourced and fresh produce as possible; keep meals nutritional and flavorful and on budget (meals cost about $7 to produce) but after years of restaurant experience, Keller seems to have a unique ability to do both.

Keller’s work at the Meals on Wheels kitchen, however, has a short shelf life. Once staff is retrained and menus reworked, he’ll move on to more local projects. “I plan to go to schools and hospitals next,” he said of his passion for transforming industrial cuisine.

“There is just such a need to re-educate people working in the institutional food model,” said the chef.

Keller plans to stay on as permanent spokesman and menu consultant for the Council on Aging. “How could I not? I’m getting love letters for the food now. Really, love letters!” he said.

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13 thoughts on “Josef Keller: A Chef’s Second Act

  1. I can’t say how proud I am of my father and to everything he has brought to the program and to peoples lives, and to the naysayer…well ky guess is you just couldn’t hack it because he demands the best out of his employees, and has no patience for slacking.

    He hasn’t been as successful or such a fixture for so long without doing something right, or have the people say they have been spending holidays there for the last 10th years and that they don’t know what they are going to do without it…..

    Oh ya he is swiss not austrian

  2. I just want to send a big shout-out to Chef Josef for undertaking to bring better food to the meals-on-wheels clientele. I often get accused of bitching about purveyors, but when I do so it’s because I believe that the food industry too often does the eating public a grave disservice by serving up poor quality stuff and/or encouraging the worst traits in the modern American diet. Chef Josef is clearly doing the opposite, trying to bring what is positive about food and cooking to a form in which taste and nutrition (and smell! yes!) are too often and tragically absent.

    Bravo!

  3. Seriously, Tonami-afraid-to-write-your-real-name. Are we a disgruntled employee perhaps? Maybe Josef caught you stealing others tips, or just stealing? Did he get rid of you because, after several chances, you simply could not do the work? Because, right, his food was so deplorable that he only stayed open for business and tables filled for oh, what Chef J, 30 some years?
    And what an amazing, and welcome challenge you are taking on neighbor! Wonderful! Why hasn’t someone thought of doing this before?
    Gut getaner Job!

  4. @tonami – shame on you. Don’t know why you need to put that negativity into something so positive. I think that Josef is doing a great service to all people that rely on “industrial” food…he’s right, it doesn’t have to taste bad or be prepared without flavor or texture. Bravo!

  5. Hear, Hear Heather! My mom was the recipient of these meals for about two years. I found solice in knowing that she was receiving at least one hot, well balanced meal a day. For some one who had a love of food and baked, cooked, gardened and canned, all her adult life, I am sure she would have loved what Josef is now brining to Meals on Wheels.

    It doesn’t have to taste institutional, your right! Hat’s off to you Josef!

  6. it takes gumption to anonymously slam a chef who’s sole mission in his retirement is to bring dignity and pleasure to people who sometimes have nothing else to look forward to in their day besides receiving this one meal.

    I think we need more people to question this kind of selfless dedication.

    Great Job!

  7. hmmm…..I as well am a former employee of Josefs and I worked side by side with him. He is an amazing chef and hard worker. For you to have never seen Josef in the kitchen most likely means you did not work for him very long as he was often found in the kitchen behind the grill. Most likely he fired you because you did not work hard. Its been over 10 years since I worked for him and I still have dreams about the foods he prepared. Good to see him contributing back to society.

  8. This is where Josef belonged all along. I was a former employee at Josefs and all I can say is that the only thing of mention was his salad dressing. He followed the model typical of Austrian wannabe Frenchmen, which was call your food French. However, the food was French by name only. Otherwise it was meals on wheels worthy.I never once saw Josef in the kitchen cooking so Josef and Meals on Wheels=Josefs II, welcome back Herr Keller.

    1. Josef is a very wonder fellow. A hard worker and a talented chef….I know him because I was one of his fellow restauranteurs for 20 years.. Josef, John Ash, Mark Maleky, Michael Hirshberg and Lisa Hemenway, to name a few, were the ones that put Santa Rosa on the culunary map….good for him for continueing to do good work.

    2. Seriously, Tonami-afraid-to-write-your-real-name. Are we a disgruntled employee perhaps? Maybe Josef caught you stealing others tips, or just stealing? Did he get rid of you because, after several chances, you simply could not do the work? Because, right, his food was so deplorable that he only stayed open for business and tables filled for oh, what Chef J, 30 some years?

      1. I’ve seen what Sonoma County calls good food, so that isn’t saying much. The food culture in Sonoma County what is deplorable. Josef was just like the rest except he had a nicer looking place thanks to the Hotel La Rose. I always thought that Josef’s should be called Louis’ (yeah okell, you know what I’m talking about). Lets just say there weren’t white faces in the back doing the dishes or cooking. The one thing I did learn from Josef about Sonoma County food culture is that they don’t care how good the food is as long as the setting makes them feel good-the converse is also true (hence the rise of the Food Trucks-ahahahahah).

        I’m not knocking Josef for doing what he’s doing now. I commmend it. I’m just saying, how about we get a young face in their-someone with talent, who in turn might turn out ot be the next 30 year restauranteur. It’s about time Sonoma county starts realizing that good, cheap food, need not walk hand in hand with a food truck (meals on wheels or in general). But that will take a younger generation with a passion to cook, not to make money, but to cook. Josef made money, but Louis was the Chef.

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