The outdated image of slop and sawdust is one the care catering industry and its champions work tirelessly to shed, so when retirement village restaurant the Redwood Bistro was awarded a coveted AA rosette in March, a spotlight was shone on the sector for all the right reasons. And it's largely thanks to the dogged determination of care catering newcomer Robert Quehan - head chef at Anchor Trust's Bishopstoke Park in Hampshire - that care catering has received this recognition.
Quehan had spent two decades cooking at the likes of the Dorchester, the Ivy and his own two-rosette restaurant, Chesil Rectory, and alongside culinary luminaries such as Anton Mosimann and Pierre Koffmann. So what sparked the move into care catering?
"If you'd asked me a few years back whether I'd ever work in a care home or retirement village, I'd have just laughed," admits Quehan.
Drawn in no small part to the prospect of a steady 37-hour week, having spent 20 years doing many more in hotels and restaurants, it was the proposition he received from Anchor Trust that really piqued his interest.
"Anchor approached me, told me what it was about and how it wanted fine dining as well as simple food, and it sounded really good," he explains. "The budget is quite good because there are residents that pay a monthly service charge that enables them to eat in the restaurant daily. You haven't got to try and achieve 70% gross profit, which stresses you out in restaurants. I only have to achieve 50%, so the ingredients I get in are a lot better."
After more than 18 months into the role and with an AA rosette under his belt, Quehan has certainly hit his stride. The retirement village is large and, aside from the Redwood Bistro, he oversees the cooking for the care home as well as a shop, where they sell cakes, biscuits and bread made in-house.
While there were certain challenges to cooking for a new type of customer, he quickly found out that his restaurant skills stood him in good stead. Quehan says: "I had to get my head around things such as dysphagia - people with swallowing difficulties requiring puréed diets. But we do a lot of purées in restaurants anyway, so it was just about applying that technique in different ways.
"I found it was an added advantage knowing a lot of restaurant techniques, like sous-vide and braising to produce softer meats. You can apply that to the care village and it seems to work."
One element of the job Quehan is particularly enjoying is cooking for a captive audience. "Restaurant diners come in and you might not see them again for one or two months. Here we see them every day. Although you do have to try and please them every day, which is difficult," he says. "You get to know them. They'll come in and ask what we've got, and I might have been fishing and have some sea bass I can show them. That's quite nice and I didn't see that coming."
Taste and texture
The Redwood serves up a daily changing menu based on what is good value at the market, and a seasonal Á la carte. Spring dishes include both English asparagus and wild asparagus from France, alongside locally picked wild garlic and mushrooms.
The menus feature vibrant food that is full of freshness and flavour, while still being easily eaten by Quehan's elderly diners. But he has found that he has to carefully select some ingredients, especially proteins.
He says: "Our Á la carte has rabbit and lamb loin at the moment, but I try to incorporate softer meats for those that can't eat very well. A braised beef cheek that's been cooking overnight is perfect. It just melts."
Food fortification is often vital for the elderly to improve recovery from illness and avoid malnutrition caused by diminished appetites and difficulties eating and swallowing. Additional fats and sugars can be used to bulk up meals of nutrient- and energy-dense food - technique that comes naturally to a classically trained chef.
"I try to use a lot of butter and cream in my dishes, but a lot of restaurants tend to use a lot of butter and cream anyway, so it has not been an issue," says Quehan, adding that the presentation of the food served up in the Redwood also reflects his training.
"I've got a background in French and English cooking, so what you see in the presentation at a good restaurant you will see here. It's all quite modern.
"Before I started at Bishopstoke, I visited a lot of care homes to see what they were doing. And some of it was absolutely awful. I personally wouldn't eat it, and I'm sure the chef that cooked it wouldn't eat it, but they were still sending it out."
With this attitude to the cooking and the clientele, it's little wonder that Quehan was able to impress the AA enough to secure a spot in its 2017 Restaurant Guide. But how did he get them to visit in the first place?
"They were reluctant to come in after I asked them, saying that they don't really do that," he says. "But [the inspector] came and spoke to me. We were sending out food that I'm sure was [worth] at least two [rosettes]. The AA wasn't keen to give us even one, but luckily they said they'd give it a go."
Since winning the rosette, Quehan has been approached by another care village to look at what they are doing, so already it looks as if others have been encouraged to up their game.
As for the Redwood, he remains as ambitious as ever and determined not to rest on his laurels: "After we won, I told the inspector: 'Next time you come in, I want two please.'"
From the spring 2017 Á la carte menu
Pan-fried king scallops dusted in parsley and scallop roe, served with squid ink risotto and pea velouté £4.25
Asparagus panna cotta with confit egg and julienne of prosciutto, toasted brioche £3.95
Rabbit loin and best-end, braised leg in sherry and saffron, carrot purée and new-season asparagus, sherry and saffron jus £13.50
Pan-fried sea bream with braised fennel, potato gnocchi and fennel purée, baby artichoke and girolles £12.95
Orange crème brÁ»lée on pistachio sponge, blood orange sorbet £3.50
Rhubarb cheesecake garnish with rhubarb beignet and rhubarb sorbet £3.75