The Chef

“This facility was built around food entirely.  Community is food; it just is.”  These are the words of Jeffrey Huegli, president and CEO of Beacon Hill at Eastgate, a new independent living/continuing care community near our home in Grand Rapids (quote from Food Management; Ideas for Onsite Food Service, May 2012).

During regular evening walks over several years Gary and I watched as Beacon Hill was built on the site of the former Metro Hospital.  Little did we know that the kitchen, informal Bistro, and 3 dining rooms were at the heart of the architectural design for the community.  Residents can eat in whatever dining room they want, and they are always seated with at least one other person unless they’d rather eat alone.  This enables residents to get to know a wide variety of their Beacon Hill neighbors.

We recently ate dinner at Beacon Hill with Marilyn, a resident whom we know well as a parishioner from Gary’s church.  To compound our pleasure we were thrilled that Executive Chef Tim England could join us for dessert.  Tim’s brother was a member of a church I served many years ago, and we have stayed connected ever since.  Tim was the long-time Executive Chef of Calvin College and was named Chef of the Year by the American Culinary Association in 2001.  A few years ago Tim sensed God calling him to make a job change.

Always eager to learn about leadership from people who are outstanding at what they do, I pepper Tim with questions.  “Tim, retirement communities in the past have been known for rather institutional food: that is, blah.  The dinner we ate was gourmet quality cuisine.  How do you do it?”

Tim replies, “Our mission, from the food itself to the presentation, service, and ambience, is to provide excellence in food service in order to enhance community.  Why can’t a retirement home have 4 star fine dining?  Why can’t we be the best restaurant in the area?  We want food to be appetizing and taste good especially because food is one of the few joys some residents have.  Food is also a prime way in which we can form community.”

In fact, the dining experience was a primary reason why Marilyn chose Beacon Hill.  She wanted to have her own apartment but also enjoy the community of eating together rather than by herself.  There are 130 independent living residents at Beacon Hill, whose average age is 79.  The kitchen also services 125 residents in the adjacent clinical community building.

  • Key learning: Leadership is striving for excellence in fulfilling your mission.  

“Tim, there were 5 entrees on the menu tonight, plus a weekly special, and I was hard-pressed to choose between them.  I understand that your menu changes completely every week.  I’m impressed!”

     Tim’s eyes light up, and he says, “One of my greatest joys is working with our team of 8 chefs and the sous chef.  I love to encourage them to use their gifts and imagination to create new recipes.  It’s like a think tank.  We’re always trying different things.  We also invite our residents to submit their favorite recipes, often using them and giving them the credit.  The residents bring a wealth of experience when they move in here.  I’d be crazy not to tap into that.”

  • Key learning: Leadership is cultivating and empowering a great team to use their own unique gifts.

“I thoroughly enjoyed all of the fresh vegetables in the salad and the entrée.  Do you  have your own garden at Beacon Hill?”

“We sure do!  We have a half acre community garden on our property with 24 plots.  Not only do we grow most of our own vegetables and herbs and some fruit, but we invite residents to till their own plot.  We advertise the produce that is raised by residents and donated to the kitchen by listing it on our menu such as ‘Mr. Larsen’s Tomatoes.’

“We also invite our neighborhood friends to lease a plot.  We encourage anyone to walk through the grounds at any time.  It’s win win.  Not only do we provide the freshest ingredients possible for our residents, but we are giving back to our community as well.

“This fall we’re having a community picnic where we cook outside in the parking lot and invite anyone from the neighborhood to have a free meal with us.  It’s our way of connecting staff, residents, and our neighbors.  We’re also thinking about having a farmer’s market outside where we sell some of our favorite foods and baked goods.”

  • Key learning: Leadership is looking beyond the institution itself to selflessly serving the wider community.

As we walk by a small formal dining room on the way to a tour of the kitchen, I ask, “That’s a pretty fancy room.  When do you use it?”

Tim says, “This is the 1919 room.  Every month we invite a group of 10 residents to a special 5 course dinner called Chef’s Table.  All residents are invited on a rotation basis, and we treat them like kings and queens as a way of expressing our appreciation for their presence at Beacon Hill.  We make it very formal and exquisite, and our residents love it!  Employees and spouses from all parts of the organization are also invited, and everyone mixes quite well.”

  • Key learning: Leadership is finding unique and even extravagant ways of simply saying, “Thank you.”

My jaw drops as I marvel at the brand new state of the art kitchen, which is at the heart of the entire community.  We say hi to Marilyn’s teenage granddaughter, who is one of a dozen servers, cooks, and dishwashers wrapping up for the day.  “Tim: what an amazing kitchen!  I’ve never seen equipment like this before.  Do you ever have time to cook yourself?

Tim says, “Right now I don’t cook much because I am responsible for overseeing the entire food service at Beacon Hill.  One of these days I’ll get back to cooking a little.  But I’m often in the kitchen to encourage my staff because our food service is not just about community among the residents.  It’s about community in the kitchen as well.”

  • Key learning: Leadership is about support as well as accountability.

As we leave the dining area, Tim stops to chat with a resident whose daughter is having dinner with her.  “Good evening, Mrs. Curtis.  How was your dinner tonight?   Is there anything we can get for you?  We are so glad that you are here at Beacon Hill.”

  • Key learning: Community is formed through noticing, connecting, and forming relationships.   

Tim is not only a great executive chef at Beacon Hill, but his role also serves a pastoral function.  In fact, Tim’s food ministry is so unique and respected that it was featured as the cover story of the same issue of Food Management; Ideas for Onsite Food Service in which Jeffrey Huegli was quotedThe article was titled, “Growing Community at Beacon Hill.”

Tim understands that his role in food service is to live out the mission of Beacon Hill to enhance community among residents, staff, and the neighborhood.  For Tim community is expressed by collaboration with food service staff and residents, creativity in food planning and preparation, and commitment to excellence at all levels.  Most of all, Tim excels in developing personal relationships with his constituents and helping them connect with the goodness of God through the wonder and pleasure of eating at table together.

The chef as pastor?  The pastor as chef?  The congregation as chef?  Jesus as chef?  Yes, yes, yes, and yes.  It’s amazing how much ministry took place around food in the Bible: Jesus tempted by the devil to change stones into bread; Jesus turning water into wine at a wedding; a sinful woman pouring expensive ointment over Jesus’ head at a dinner with a Pharisee; Martha grumbling about preparing all the food while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet; Jesus feeding 5,000 people with only 5 loaves and 2 fish; Jesus and his disciples sharing a last supper; and the resurrected Christ revealing himself to 2 disciples on the Emmaus Road through the breaking of bread.

Jesus used food to create and foster community, for Christianity was never meant to be a solitary religion.  In that sense Jesus was a master chef, for “Community is food.  It just is.”  As a new program year begins in the church, how can food become a means of witness, evangelism, and community building as well as a metaphor for the spiritual food which sustains our faith?

  • How you can create community during the fellowship time after church?  Are you always seeking to include those on the margins?
  • Do you have an intentional food ministry that aligns with your mission statement?
  • Is food preparation considered a spiritual gift in your congregation?
  • Have you ever sponsored a free cook-out in your parking lot just for the community – no strings attached?    Or how about a farmers market?
  • Have you considered creating a community garden on your church property?
  • Do you ever think about the quality and nutritional value of the food served in your church?

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” (John 4:34)

Bon Appétit from the Chef!