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A fresh approach on the menu

Jim Rondinelli and his team reinvent dining at Houston community

Created date

February 22nd, 2011

There are changes afoot in the kitchen at Eagle s Trace, an Erickson Living community in west Houston. Jim Rondinelli, the community s new director of dining services, may have just arrived in Houston, but he s already proving himself to be a game-changer a man of passion and vision for his craft. Those of us in the culinary field have to understand that we are simply building on the work of great chefs who have come before us, and leaving a foundation for those who will come after us, he says. The French have a saying, le feu sacr , which implies a devotion to our calling. That s the kind of energy I want our team to exude.

Culinary chops

Rondinelli s own culinary journey harkens back to his early days in Youngstown, Ohio, where he was a sous chef of sorts for his grandmother. I come from an Italian background, so I know food and family, he says. But I didn t realize that you could take cooking to the next level and pursue it professionally until I had the chance to work at a small upscale restaurant in Cambridge, Mass. The owners had other restaurants in Denmark, so every six months they sent a chef from Copenhagen to the States. I received a great education, not in the traditional sense, but in the form of a working apprenticeship. From there, Rondinelli went on to work in several of New England s top kitchens, including Boston s Four Seasons Hotel and the famed Cranebrook Tea Room. Nouvelle cuisine was at the height of its popularity in the late 70s and early 80s, says Rondinelli. The emphasis on fresh food and presentation reminded me in many ways of my childhood. I used to help my grandmother with her vegetable garden, and I can still remember how the morning dew glistened on the zucchini flowers. When European chefs started featuring stuffed zucchini flowers on their menus, I understood their inspiration. Now Rondinelli hopes to pass along that same inspiration to the culinary team at Eagle s Trace. Prior to his appointment as director of dining services, Rondinelli served as the executive chef and interim dining director at Linden Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Hingham, Mass. I consider it a privilege to be working for Erickson Living, he says. It s a great way for me to give back. There are a lot of very talented individuals working in our kitchens. That talent, Rondinelli believes, is best drawn out in a positive climate. Absent from the Eagle s Trace kitchen is the Gordon Ramsay-esque ire that is so prevalent in reality cooking shows. Creating the best possible dining experience for residents takes teamwork, says Rondinelli. Erickson Living communities have developed a wonderful dining program. Their key to success is the ability to manage and marry those best practices with our own culinary team s talent. In that spirit, Rondinelli recently invited Erickson Living s Corporate Executive Chef Wayne Knowles to join the Eagle s Trace culinary staff for a week-long brainstorming session. Knowles worked alongside Rondinelli; Chef de Cuisine Garrett Lucas, who recently transferred from another Erickson Living community, Highland Springs in Dallas; and Lead Cook Jose Coroy. We worked on regional specialties, like brisket, rubs, and barbeque, says Rondinelli. We have a smoker on campus that was made for Eagle s Trace. We also worked on a new line of Smart Sweets desserts with a lower fat content and sugar substitute for residents with special dietary needs.

Comments welcome

And when it comes to the residents, Rondinelli is quick to solicit feedback on their dining experience through nightly dining room and caf table visits, comment cards and a newly formed resident menu subcommittee. We recently served coq au vin for dinner, and one of our residents who had lived in France suggested a few modifications. I appreciate that kind of give and take, he says. In his spare time, Rondinelli is getting to know the Bayou City. I ve been reading as many barbeque cookbooks as I can find, he says. And when Chef Knowles came to town, he took me to Central Market. Now I ll never do my grocery shopping anywhere else. But one Lone Star tradition that Rondinelli hasn t succumbed to is the laid-back Texas approach to dress, where casual Friday has inadvertently encroached on the rest of the workweek. Wearing a suit and tie to work is my way of showing respect for our residents and the job we do, he says.