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What’s cooking at Tallgrass Creek

Signature Dining introduces fresh, hot, and made to order

Created date

May 30th, 2017
Chef James Braddock answers a question from Elsie Pickett at a recent Dining With Donuts gathering.
Chef James Braddock answers a question from Elsie Pickett at a recent Dining With Donuts gathering.

Several times a year, Doug Ohliger, Tallgrass Creek’s director of dining, hosts open forums about something near and dear to all: food and dining. At the well-attended “dining town halls,” Ohliger shares with community members what happens in- and outside of Tallgrass Creek’s restaurant-grade kitchen and elicits their ideas and suggestions.

“It’s a great opportunity to get together, hear the latest, and have our questions answered,” says resident Darlyne Sheppeard.

Before coming to the Overland Park, Kans., community in 2015, Ohliger served as restaurant manager at Ann’s Choice in Bucks County, Pa., one of 19 retirement communities, including Tallgrass Creek, owned and managed by Baltimore, Md.-based Erickson Living. At Tallgrass Creek, he oversees the kitchens, menu choices, varied dining venues, and personnel, including the on-site continuing care neighborhood.

Dining Services General Manager Kate Taylor, another Ann’s Choice alumna, assists Ohliger by coordinating day-to-day operations of dining and food service. 

Taylor started her career 14 years ago while in high school as a server at one of Ann’s Choice’s restaurants and worked her way up to the position she holds today at Tallgrass Creek. Taylor is also on hand at the dining town halls to offer her perspective. 

Interestingly, Taylor has six siblings who, like her, have all been servers at Ann’s Choice while in high school. 

We caught up with Taylor and Ohliger recently to see what’s new on the food service scene and how they meet the culinary expectations of the people who live at Tallgrass Creek. 

Q: So how do you meet everyone’s expectations?

Ohliger: (laughing) It takes a village and a dedicated one. No one can do it alone, and fortunately, we have great help. Kate is very capable, as is our executive chef, James Braddock, along with the entire kitchen and dining staffs. But we can only make it happen by staying in touch with the residents, as their opinions matter most.

Taylor: In addition to the dining town halls, Chef Braddock hosts monthly Dining With Donuts get-togethers with the residents, so he and his staff know what’s on everyone’s mind regarding the food we serve. Like the town halls, they’re very well attended.

Q: How do you keep the dining experience fresh and fun?

Ohliger: Timely question! We’re excited about a program we recently rolled out called Signature Dining, which features fresh, made-to-order menu offerings. It means all food is prepared at time of service rather than in large batches and kept warm.

Taylor: It’s fresher, hotter, better tasting, and overall a more personal dining experience. Another bonus is less food waste, which both the residents and staff appreciate. 

Q: How did you prepare for this different dining style? 

Ohliger: There was a lot of preparation. We held focus groups made up of residents to see which entrees were the most popular. We also involved the kitchen and dining staffs for their recommendations. No surprise, the top choices are steak, pasta, and grilled seafood, which are now prepared fresh at the time of order. Our focus groups also told us to add more dessert options, which we have. 

Taylor: The chefs and kitchen staff went through extensive training using new cooking methods and equipment to sauté and grill food as orders come in. The dining staff also received additional training so orders are delivered as soon as they’re prepared. 

On another note, we’re offering kitchen tours each week so community members can see how a restaurant-grade kitchen works, especially during the dinner rush hour. 

Q: Is Signature Dining just offered in the Blue Sky Restaurant for the evening meal? 

Taylor: We also offer it in the Sunflower Bistro. Entrées, sandwiches, and fresh salads are all prepared at time of order. Again, we used residents’ input to determine what were the preferred choices. 

Q: How about the Marketplace where neighbors gather for a cup of coffee or casual snack?

Ohliger: The Marketplace has just undergone a major makeover. The newly designed area has more seating, an area designated for freshly prepared soups, salads, and sandwiches, along with the coffee and grocery items residents have come to expect. We’ve added some breakfast items and other things residents requested. As always, seating spills out onto the patio during nice weather.

Q: What if someone doesn’t want to eat out but rather in their apartment home? 

Taylor: That’s another option. People can call the Blue Sky Restaurant or Sunflower Bistro and order carryout or delivery. Quite a few residents do that each evening.

Q: What are the biggest challenges in your positions? 

Ohliger: With Hummingbird Square opening later this year, our mission is to make the dining transition for both future and current residents seamless. We’re always seeking ways to do things more efficiently, and yes, it’s a challenge. But it’s the relationships with the people who live here that drive us. That’s the most meaningful part of our job—we truly want them to be pleased. 

Taylor: We never forget that we serve more than 350 (soon to be more) residents who are very good cooks every day, all day. It requires energy and attention from the entire kitchen staff to ensure a satisfying dining experience daily, and we work hard to accomplish that.  


Cooking for a crowd

Executive Chef James Braddock knows a thing or two about cooking for a crowd. Before coming to Tallgrass Creek, Braddock spent ten years as sous-chef at College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo., where he coordinated meals daily for about 1,000 students. 

One morning each month, Tallgrass Creek neighbors join Braddock at his Dining With Donuts gatherings in the Sunflower Bistro for coffee and freshly baked doughnuts as he shares the latest from the kitchen. 

Food facts

At a recent gathering, residents learned interesting food facts such as what the top entrée is (grilled salmon) and how many servings were sold that month (about 800). Braddock also reported that Tallgrass Creek neighbors love their Waldorf salad. His team served about 3,000 of the  apple, nut, and celery dish over a 45-day period.  

Braddock usually introduces one or more kitchen staff members, who offer their perspective and answer questions. The microphone makes the rounds so people can ask questions and make suggestions about food and service as Braddock listens.

“These sessions are fun, eye opening, and important,” says Braddock. “We take comments and suggestions and go to work on them in the kitchen.”