The cooking of care homes, as well as the cooking of our other institutions, is often forgotten about when we talk about chef work.
“There’s a sombre atmosphere in the home for sure,” she tells me over the phone, “but the cooking is still fun – as much as it can be under the circumstances.” For this special cake, Niamh had to create something that Ann would be able to chew and swallow, but that would still be grand enough to mark a golden wedding anniversary. Having spent the last few years finessing her skills in making texture modified foods (everything from ‘Jaffa cakes’ reimagined in a pureed form to scones made for people with chewing and swallowing difficulties), it wasn’t too great a challenge.
Niamh is one of many cooks keeping some of the most vulnerable fed during a crisis that poses a grave threat to those residents’ wellbeing. In care homes, nursing homes, assisted living spaces, hospices, hospitals and respite care centres, residents often have complex needs, limiting which foods they can eat and with what assistance. The cooks who work in these spaces play a vital role in the systems of care which, now more than ever, bear responsibility not just for looking after people, but for nourishing them, enriching their lives and laying the groundwork for them to thrive. With lockdown in full effect and residents in care settings largely unable to see friends or loved ones, these homes have had to find ways of expanding people’s worlds from within the safety of four walls.
Kitchens in care settings occupy a strange and largely ignored space in the world of professional cooking. We uphold chefs and their ragtag kitchen armies, on the one hand, and immerse ourselves in home cooking on the other. But somewhere in between these poles, between the public and the private, is the vast amount of vital, uncelebrated cooking that happens in our institutions: across care settings, hospitals, prisons and more. These kitchen spaces, in which the mechanisms of the market are felt less keenly – where cooks cook in order to please and to feed, rather than to upsell, edify or impress – tend to go unnoticed when we discuss hospitality, kitchen innovation, food culture and ethics. But it is in precisely these blurred spaces, one person’s home and another’s workplace, where some of the knottiest issues in our food systems are worked out.
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