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Aging Well Through Food

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Matt Dirks is the Director of Culinary Services at Portsmouth Retirement Residence in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He was raised in a small town just south of Winnipeg and loves to spend his time with his partner, Janna, friends, siblings and his parents. He enjoys fishing, playing guitar, building furniture, hiking and snowboarding.

What made you decide to choose a career in culinary?
I decided to move over to a role with Revera after several years in the hotel industry working as a Brand Standards Manager for a holdings company. My role with that company took me all over Canada but left me feeling a bit disconnected from my community and family. Joining Revera meant I could focus my efforts into one workplace, as well as spend more time with my partner and family. I truly enjoy bringing people together and building great teams, so working with our community at Portsmouth was a great fit for me.

What is your favourite childhood memory involving food, or a special meal?
I grew up in a house that had a production kitchen in the basement, so I feel like I have an entire lifetime of good memories around food. I think my best memories are simple potluck BBQs with friends on a warm summer night. Nothing beats getting together with the people you love and working together to make an amazing meal. Food is a necessity, but also a joy. All over the world every day, folks are putting together meals for people they love, and I like to connect with that spirit of togetherness and humanness.

“I want to be mentally and physically healthy with a good sense of humour at 90 like many of my friends at Portsmouth.”

What do you enjoy about cooking at Revera?
My favourite part of what we do at our residence is showcasing the special talents of our chefs and servers. My team of Alecia, Mustafa, Fred, Ryan and Randy all have really unique and valuable strengths. My favourite thing is when a team member is able to show off a signature recipe and see how much our residents have enjoyed it and feel connected through their work. Our serving team also does an incredible job of building relationships with our residents and that effort is led by Orianna and Merceades.

What is your go-to recipe to impress your residents?
Our go-to recipes to impress are our salmon dishes. We have a few really excellent full filet salmon recipes that we enjoy preparing and each one is generally a hit. We love to be able to leave the skin on, build colourful and compelling plates and try to create a visually appealing dinner.

What is the most popular or most requested menu item at your residence?
One of the most requested items that we feature is our BBQ Ribs. We have a couple of chefs that continue to push themselves to always improve the recipe, and I feel like it’s just getting better with time.

What would residents say about your food?
I would say our residents recognize how hard our entire team works to provide choice. We work really hard as a team to find out specific likes and dislikes of our residents and provide options that will help them maintain and enjoy the diet of choice.

What is the best compliment you have received about your food from a resident?
The best compliments we receive are always about a specific special touch that one of our team members makes on a dish or dessert. We are lucky to have some really amazing chefs working with us, so to be honest when I receive compliments, I send it directly over to the team members who worked hard to execute that dish.

In your opinion, what are three tools every chef needs?
Every chef needs:
1. A good working knowledge of Excel or a similar spreadsheeting program to keep track of your recipes;
2. Sharp knives;
3. A temperature probe.

In your opinion, what are the top five kitchen staples every kitchen should have?
My top 5 staples in every kitchen are:
1. Good quality mustard
2. A red and white wine you are comfortable cooking with
3. Fresh eggs
4. Flour
5. Salt

With these 5 staples you can cover a remarkable amount of ground in terms of recipes.

What underrated foods should people try?
I think everyone should try Ethiopian food at least once in their lives. Winnipeg has a large Ethiopian and Eritrean community and we have several people from that part of the world on our team. Their cuisine is known for very slow cooked curried stews and pickled veggies that are served in group settings. Paired with high quality Injera bread, it’s a chance to sit down with friends and family and truly eat together. Obviously not possible during COVID times, but the experience is one every person should have at least once. Be careful with the Injera! It expands in your stomach so be aware of how much you are eating even if it tastes so good!

When are you happiest at work?
I’m happiest at work when our systems are running as designed, residents are feeling cared for, and our team is excited about a meal they are working to prepare for our community.

What do you wish more people knew about a career in the senior living sector?
Working in Senior Living has really taught me the value of true community at work. I see many of the residents at Portsmouth just as much as I see my own family, and when you build relationships with individuals it gives your work a lot of meaning. I also wish people knew about the work/life balance aspect of working in senior living, which is hard to find in the hospitality industry. I’m a systems person, and when everything is running well, it’s very satisfying to be able to see our team delivering a high standard of service while also meeting goals in other areas of their lives.

What have you learned from your residents?
I think the biggest thing I’ve learned in the past three years at Portsmouth is how choices I make now will affect how well I age. My observation is that the folks who continue to learn, stay physically active and have dreams for their future have a fantastic aging experience. I want to be mentally and physically healthy with a good sense of humour at 90 like many of my friends at Portsmouth. It’s really interesting how few interactions we have with older people out in the cities we live, so I’ve really valued the amazing advice and examples of our residents at Portsmouth.

Aging Well Through Food Lamb

Irish-style lamb with Guinness and caper gravy

Aging Well Through Food Salmon

Hand-cut salmon with garlic caper butter on wild rice with cauliflower and roasted peppers

Aging Well Through Food Greek Chicken

Greek chicken thigh with house-made tzatziki on seasoned pepper, onion and eggplant

Aging Well Through Food Cake

Chocolate and mint cake with house-made biscotti topper

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