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Chef must keep entry secret until competition

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Karen Schluntz, director of dining services for Freedom Plaza in Sun City Center, was nominated by the Plaza’s executive director, Pete Budzinski, to enter the regional culinary competition taking place Nov. 18 in Jacksonville being held by the Plaza’s parent company, Brookdale Senior Living, which owns 565 retirement communities across the nation.


SUN CITY CENTER - Karen Schluntz wasn’t allowed to tell me what her fantastic creation will be, just that it will be a desert and it will be prepared on a grill.

Karen, who is the director of dining services for all six dining rooms at Sun City Center’s Freedom Plaza, was nominated by the Plaza’s executive director Pete Budzinski to enter the regional competition for a chance to win the “Ultimate Chef America” title offered by the Plaza’s parent company, Brookdale Senior Living, owner of 565 retirement communities across the nation. Brookdale has a total of 32,000 employees serving 53,000 residents, and only 10 Florida chefs- two in Hillsborough County, Karen and Damon Whitney of Freedom Square in Seminole- were chosen to participate in the national event.

Each participant will work on a team of four preparing the three-course meal, consisting of an appetizer, the entrée (which will also consist of side dishes) and a desert.

Karen will personally develop and prepare the group’s desert.

“We were given certain ingredients we’re required to use in the entrée, but not in the desert,” she told me. She also said the only cooking mode that will be available during the competition is a grill. Eight judges will taste each group’s food, so there must be eight servings of everything, she added.

Judges include Leeza Gibbons, media personality and founder of the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation, and author of the book on care giving, “Take your own Oxygen First.” Shannon Miller, Olympic medal-winner in gymnastics and professional golfer Fred Funk will also be judges, as will Jeremy Bloom, Olympic and World champion snow skier and Marcel Davignon, a resident of Brookdale’s Freedom Pointe and a longtime culinary arts specialist who has written books about cooking and designed cooking classes as well as working as a chef.

The competition will feature heart-healthy foods and showcase the importance of nutrition in older adults, said Holly Botsford of Brookdale’s home office in Milwaukee, Wisc.

“To my knowledge no other event like this has ever focused on senior dining experiences,” Holly said. “We know this competition will produce a lot of healthy recipes that can be used in our many communities.”

The groups will compete for two hours in Jacksonville, and the event will be broadcast live to the communities that have chefs participating in the competition, including Freedom Plaza.

Food-inspired art created by these competitions across the nation will be auctioned at (Brookdale’s) Ultimate Chef America event when all regions of the country have participated. Proceeds will go to the Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation, which elevates national consciousness about care giving and helps those most impacted by chronic illness in their families.

Karen said she is excited about her trip to Jacksonville and is practicing her dish. The only other competition she has entered earned her a First Place award in the Boston area in a Taste of Our Town in 1993.

After being raised in the Boston, Mass. area, she first got a degree in marketing and communications; later changed careers and managed health clubs and was a fitness instructor; and then studied culinary arts at Newbury College in Brookline, Mass., to become a chef.

“This is my third and best career,” she said. The now-57-year old moved to South County in 1997 with her husband, Steven Pacini.

Every day she oversees all the kitchen preparation, teaching everything from basic hygiene to garnishing the plates.

“When you work in a senior living community, it isn’t like in a restaurant, you have to leave your ego at the door,” she told me. “We have to remember we’re working in their homes. We even keep a list of ‘requests’ in each dining room and within 10 days incorporate the requested dish onto our menu and then call the guest who asked for it and let them know it’s available.”

That’s how they got blackened salmon on the menu, and now they serve about 70 orders of it a night, she said.

The people who wait on the tables are so close to their residents they know who likes water with meals, who likes tea, and who likes coffee without asking. They can even preset a lot of the tables, she explained.

The kitchen staff makes everything from scratch, including baked goods, stock and marinades. “We try and make things healthy, but this is an independent living facility, so people have their choice to order what they want to have.”

Brookdale also owns Plaza West Health Care nursing home and Homewood Residence, but they have separate dining rooms, she said.

Residents of Golfview Terrace condominiums, just east of the Plaza’s main building eat at the Plaza, and staff in the Plaza kitchen also prepares the meals for the Plaza Club which is the facility at the front of the Plaza complex that is rented out for club and organization luncheons.

Karen’s team members are Gary Korb from the Carriage Club in Jacksonville; Edward Ramirez of The Atrium in Jacksonville; and Kurt Weber of Bahia Oaks in Sarasota. They also have a liaison keeping team members aware of each other's progress, Scott Bombard of Clairbridge in Venice.

Starting in Phoenix, Ariz. In January, events like this have been held across the country. The place and date for the final event have not yet been set. People who wish to see more information about Ultimate Chef America can visit http://www.facebook.com/ultimatechefbrookdale.




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