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.
“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.