Growing up in Taumarunui, Fiona Le Gros learned to cook from an early age, and is now head chef at the Hilda Ross Retirement Village in Hamilton.
With her mother was a home economics teacher, and having spent a couple of years in France, she fell in love with bakeries. After teaching English for a while, and then working as an assistant manager at a service station in Hamilton, Le Gros decided it was time to pursue her passion.
After training and interning at a restaurant, Le Gros was lucky to be kept on for the next ten years. When her employer transitioned from fine dining to a cafe, she adapted with him.
Her introduction to the retirement village sector was due to her mother becoming a resident of aged care. Le Gros was convinced she could do a better job than what was being served and thought she would have a go. She found the hours were better and that night shifts were far less frequent than those in the cafe.
Part of being a chef in a retirement village is bringing an element of nostalgia to the dishes she makes.
“I like to go back to things they know or things we used to have when we were kids, especially hot desserts. They really spark memories for our residents,” said Le Gros.
As head chef of the kitchen’s team of ten, they cater for around 150 residents in the care centre daily, and 40 once a month for fine dining. The current team has been working together for a few years now, which Le Gros described as being smooth working and consistent.
The menu will often feature various dishes that have been steamed, slowly cooked, and soft food, but Le Gros reassures that there is no substitute for flavour. There is no gas in the kitchen, which is quite unheard of for the industry, so everything is cooked in the oven, or on the electric hob. The menus Le Gros prepares are all planned and prepared for nutritional balance, allowing experimenting with flavour and technique.
Le Gros stays up to date with trends and modern techniques within the culinary world, and implements them in her cooking. An extensive collection of cookbooks as well, allows her to research flavours and meals that may be of interest to the residents.
One trend that she would like to see mainstreamed into retirement villages around the country is the use of plant-based options. She finds the concept interesting and the flavour to be spot on. Dietary requirements, such as gluten-free, are also becoming increasingly frequent in the aged care sector, which Le Gros said is something to watch.
Le Gros finds that there is a lot more loyalty and length of service in her sector than in other kitchens that she has worked in.
“It takes time, effort and energy to train a person, so it’s really nice to have all the staff trained well. You can get ideas and input from people because they’re not focused on ‘what do I do now?’ but instead on ‘what can I do better?’ and that’s how people develop and progress.”
The opportunities in the retirement village sector for chefs are something that Le Gros finds particularly interesting. She is curious about how operations work, and how she can visit another village to share resources. She believes that various possibilities allow staff to learn and further develop skills.
When working at the cafe, Le Gros had the job of preparing the vegetables before cooking. Now at the Hilda Ross Village, she orders them pre-prepared, which she added is a big time saver that can equate to the cost of labour as well.
There are still areas that Le Gros would like to work on, which she said will come in good time.
“Sometimes it’s good when people are on leave or sick because other people have to step up and do a different role for a day, and you see the smile on their face when they realise they can do a different role and give them opportunities to move around the kitchen.”