The Times

Hot Off The Press: The Times

Jane Slade
27 March 2024
In her latest piece for The Times, writer Jane Slade has been uncovering the cutting-edge research and innovative practices that are shaping the culinary landscape within later living communities.

Food and nutrition have long been cornerstones of integrated communities with bistros, cafés and restaurants at their heart. Now things are moving to a new level, with nutritionists and wellbeing managers working alongside head chefs who have royal and Michelin-starred experience. While comfort food staples such as bangers and mash and fish and chips are still popular, retirement kitchens are being encouraged to create imaginative health-boosting menus, alongside nutritionists giving seminars about how well to age well.

Matt Tsistrakis, the Greek-born head chef at Auriens Chelsea, devised recipes based on chemical composition, turning his kitchen into a science lab. 

"Look at simple chemistry," he says. "If you combine broccoli, a very good source of plant protein, with lemon or vinegar or butter or olive oil and mustard seed you allow your cells to absorb 60 per cent more protein."

"Another example is spinach - everyone knows it is healthy, but there is a dark part: if you consume spinach raw it is very high in oxalates [natural compounds found in vegetables, fruits, nuts and grains], which don't let us absorb all the available iron. But if you heat it up and rinse it you get ride of the oxalates."

Tsistrakis was head chef at the Savoy and helped Hélène Darroze to win her first Michelin star at the Connaught. He sources many of his products from Crate to Plate, an urban farming company with an underground farm in Elephant and Castle, south London.

Interestingly, none of Auriens' residents have a food intolerance. "That [food intolerances] seems to be more common in younger people," Tsistrakis says. "There are a lot of factors that change the way that we interact with food."

Tsistrakis works closely with Gideon Remfry, the leader of Auriens's wellbeing team and founder of the Kyros Project, which champions active ageing. Aidan Goggins in the medical nutrition at Kyros and the author of the internationally acclaimed book The Sirtfood Diet.

Wallecea Living, a newcomer to the retirement sector, has appointed a wellbeing manager who is a trained nutritionist and therapist before its luxury 104 homes, priced from £950,000, are built in Marylebone in 2026.

"Nutrition and health plays a key part in fostering a vibrant and healthy community, and its at the forefront of our mission," says Paul Morgan, the company's co-found and chief executive. "Our approach to dining is rooted in providing a diverse menu that can be enjoyed each day, and one which caters to the individual tastes and dietary needs of the owners. Nutrient-focused and wellness-orientated ingredients factor high in what we serve to our owners." 

Wallecea will open its restaurant to the general public and have a rooftop vegetable garden so it can grow its own produce. 

Homeowners at Audley Scarcroft Park in West Yorkshire have a restaurant menu featuring some of Queen Elizabeth II's favourite dishes, prepared by its head chef, who used to cook for her. Kevin Connor was the sous chef at Buckingham Palace for two years, an experience that has inspired his menus at the newly opened community of 172 homes surrounded by 110 acres of parkland near Leeds.

"Cooking for the Queen was an incredible highlight of my career, from the state banquets to her 80th birthday celebrations and Christmas at Sandringham," Connor says. "It definitely inspired the menu here at our all-day dining Thackaray's restaurant, with some of the Queen's favourites, like grilled fish and homemade chicken curry. 

She also had a taste for [Heinz] Sandwich Spread in her afternoon tea sandwiches, but we haven't put that on the menu yet."

 Locally sourced produce is a key feature of retirement communities, with more growing their own fruit, vegetables and herbs.

More than half the vegetables and salads used in dishes at the Greenhouse, the restaurant at Rangeford's Wadswick Green retirement village in Wiltshire, are grown in the village's vegetable garden. Seasonality and sustainability top the menu for Leon Sheppard, head chef at the Greenhouse, who arrived from the five-star Methuen Arms hotel in Corsham two years ago. Sheppard works with Wadswick Green's head gardener to ensure the best ingredients go into his marinated broad bean barley salad and sautéed black cabbage.

"We have poured a lot of effort into creating variety for the menu," he says. "Drawing on fresh local ingredients proudly source from our own vegetable patch."

LifeCare Residences in Grove Place, Hampshire, has devoted part of its 27-acre grounds to a garden growing seasonal and organic produce. And like many retirement communities, it has introduced beehives to increase biodiversity. Some 10,000 bees have been busy making honey that can be enjoyed in the restaurant and is available for homeowners to buy.

At LifeCare's London community in Battersea Place the executive head chef Frederic Scieux, who used to work for Albert Roux (one of the first chefs in London to win three Michelin stars), delights homeowners with a menu of international, modern and classical dishes. 

By providing state-of-the-art kitchens and equipment, retirement communities are able to attract high-calibre kitchen staff - vital if developments are to attract discerning buyers. Dominic Ash, the head chef at Inspired Villages' Gifford Lea in Chester, says that the company's kitchens are on a par with those at Marcus Wareing restaurants and Gordon Ramsay's Pétrus in London, where he used to work. "I was astounded at how professional the kitchen was at Gifford Lea - and so well equipped," he says. "It means I can cook food I have served in AA-rosette restaurants."

While his lemon sole with a crab mousse and beurre blanc is popular, he says most residents love traditional meals such as shepherd's pie and a Sunday roast. "People don't want fine dining every day. It's about getting the right balance. Although my smoked haddock lasagne got mixed reviews," he admits. 

At Pegasus's Belle Vue development in Hampstead, very different food is on offer. Freddie's Deli is a New York-inspired restaurant with an open kitchen. It specialises in smoked fish bagels and platters, salt beef sandwiches and a range of egg brunch dishes. There are lots of veggie dishes too, such as aubergine schnitzel, and delicious desserts like honey cake and chocolate mousse. 

The owner and executive chef, Jack Graham, who also runs a plant-based café and juice bar business, considers himself more of a home cook than a professional chef, and proudly boasts that he sources all his food locally. His smoked fish comes from Secret Smokehouse in east London, and the meat comes from the Ethical Butcher. Even the bagels are local, and the herbs are from the Belle Bue herb garden, next to the restaurant kitchen.

For the celebrity chef Rick Stein, 77, ageing well goes beyond eating well. He is employing people in their sixties and seventies to work in his chain of seafood restaurants. This is because he thinks early retirement contributed to his father's mental health problems and eventual suicide. 

"They love it. And the customers love them," he says. "Dad took early retirement. He struggled without all the camaraderie and pressure of work. Let's not be too hasty to push older people out of the workplace." Or in his case, the restaurant. 

Click here to read the article on The Times' website.

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