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Episode 114: Joe Abuso

Chef Joe Abuso of Recipes & Rotations provides nutrition and recipe tips.


Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast, the senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas here in Chicago. Continuing to bring on incredible thought leaders in the space and people that are putting their hearts and their heads behind creating products and services for the aging population. I want to welcome today Joe Abuso. He is with Recipes and Rotations and he is wearing the most incredible uniform. Welcome to the program. 


Joe: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me. 


Josh: Yeah, if our, if our listeners are not also viewing this, I called you chef. You look very official.


Joe: People have called me chef for years. And in more chef-like environment than this place. 


Josh: And we’re about to find out why. 


Lucas: All right, so Joe, let’s dive deeper into your backstory. Because clearly there’s been a long journey to get to this point.


JOes: Absolutely. I started out, I’ve been a chef for 30 years. But always in fine dining. I know some of us are from Dallas. It was in a mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, Texas, which is a great restaurant, Cafe Annie in Houston is a great restaurant.


So my, my experience, I graduated culinary student America in New York. So all my, all my experience was at really high levels of fine dining, never, never in senior living. That started about seven years ago. In a nutshell, after cooking some great restaurants, I owned a catering company in Houston, Texas for about 20 years. And even that was like super, super high end. We did all the society weddings, we did the opera galas, all that kind of thing. And I sold it 12 years ago and was looking for something to do.


So I started consulting and I was well known in Houston, at least as a food person. So I started doing a lot of consulting. That all was, it was a nice way to make a living at that point. But about seven years ago, I got hired at a senior living community, a CCRC in Houston, about 200 residents, had been there since 1960. And they were using a third party provider for their food and they weren’t happy with it and they wanted me to help them decide if they could do a better job for the same money in house. That was long story short I did the feasibility study basically and decided that yeah, what they were paying, they really could do better food, better service if they did it in house. And then I went on to develop their program and I worked with them for about six months before we actually and replaced the third party company with my program.


And this was probably six years, a little over six years they’ve been using it. They still use it. They love it. The residents love it. It’s operating at or under budget, but it opened my eyes to the whole senior living segment. Again, I had all this chef experience but not senior living experience. I was kind of looking for a new challenge and something that would be fun to do cause I didn’t want to do another fancy restaurant. I didn’t want to continue catering. And this was like a brand new thing that I could use. Everything I’d learned and what you guys have known as long as I have, but it’s food wise it can be a really bleak landscape in senior living communities. Not, not all places. Some places do a bang up job, but a lot of them, it’s what we call institutional food, like hospital food. And I got to, I really got to know that industry inside and out. I had to, to put together that, that first program. 


What I ended up doing was I did, I did a number of consulting jobs, but I was trying to figure out a way that I could help as many communities as possible transition, if you will, from like an institutional food service concept to like what I would call more of a culinary hospitality. Like you’d get in a good restaurant, maybe not in the best restaurant in the world, but certainly the kind of restaurants that your typical resident would have enjoy going to or maybe still enjoy going to and from time to time. 


And I put together a program or the Recipes and Rotations, real food for mom and dad. It’s a web based subscription service whereby different communities can get a subscription. They get all my menus, all the recipes and we just call it Recipes and Rotations. A lot of people know rotations are what they call the menu cycles. 


Josh: Okay. 


Joe: That’s the lingo. So Recipes and Rotations they get access to all my menu rotations, all my recipes and a lot of other tools that as I got to know existing staff like tools that help make up for their shortcomings. ‘Cause the guys who cook in these places were all just salt to the earth, hard working people. But in most cases, the food they’re cooking is the best food they’ve ever cooked and if the food’s not very good, well. So this helps them kind of up their game to, again, more of a culinary hospitality kind of level. In a nutshell. That’s it.


Josh: What a relevant topic. You know, every operator that I and myself included, you know, food, the dining program, whatever you want to call it, is not only one of our biggest budget items as it relates to just food cost, prep, the labor, but it’s also one of the most important things to our residents. And it seems like, you know, we know that as independence sometimes starts to fail these older adults, anything they have control over the independence they have. Not only do we want them to embrace that and take ownership of that, but they do. And food can be like one of your greatest assets for a community, but it can also be one of your biggest downfalls. Biggest complaint areas. So outside in, as a partner to the industry over the last several years, you’ve built this cool platform. We’re just learning about since we met you I think at Argentum- 


Joe: -Yeah, in San Antonio. 


Josh: Yeah. So what are some of the, what are some of the trends that you’re seeing that are problematic in our space that are common that you might have a solution for?


Joe: That’s a great question because the situation is, you know, the operators aren’t trying to do a bad job. Obviously they want to serve good food, but in a lot of cases, not all cases, but, but in a lot of cases, they really just don’t know how to do it. I’m making some broad generalizations here, but there’s a big tradition in senior living that the food really doesn’t come out of a fine dining or even a good restaurant tradition. It comes out of a hospital tradition. Again, big generalizations, but a lot of the programs started out in a way that all the systems and procedures and the menus and the kind of style of food it came across more like putting the institution above the individual. And I think over the years that’s gotten worse and worse in some cases.


And now, and you guys talk all the time and talk, I was just at one of the presentations as the greatest generation are starting to be replaced by the oldest baby boomers. I’ve seen this with my own two eyes. I’m sure you guys have, too. The greatest generation, the baby boomers, there’s  just like totally different mentalities. The baby boomers have a much, they’re a lot pickier in everything. I’m sure every facet of, of the community, but especially the food. They’re just not willing to eat hospital food the rest of their lives. And hospital food was like a harsh term, but it’s, there’s some truth to it. So all a lot of this again systems and procedures and just operations in a lot of senior, senior living facilities really put the institution above the resident.


Just kind of why it’s called institutional food, I think, and what I’m trying to do and others. I’m not the first to try, but what I’m trying to do is kind of combine my two two different worlds and help the operators who are interested in serving better food, giving them all the tools they need. And I’m  leaving off a lot of them. And the basic ones are menus and the recipes, but there’s a lot of other little things, like, for instance, I found out one of the hardest things for any chef to do is place an order. If you think about it, you’ve got, I mean, literally hundreds of different recipes for, you know, 75 people for breakfast and 150 people for lunch, and then, you know, 75 for dinner and they’re looking at, I mean, you think of- 


Josh: I can’t buy groceries for five people.


Joe: Well, there you go. Exactly. It’s tricky. And, a better chef is able to do that, that’s a skill they’ve learned. A lot of the guys in the senior living kitchens, not all of them, but some of them just have the hardest time doing that. And then they’ll either run out of food and they’re like running to the grocery store and like paying retail. 


Lucas: It’s expensive to do that. 


Joe: Oh, it’s ridiculous. It blows, it blows their budget out of the water or they ordered too much of something and then it goes rotten, which is even, you know. So like one of the tools I gave was they can punch in like super, super easy, easy, friendly, how many portions they want for it for, you know, every breakfast, every day, every, you know, how many desserts on lunch on Tuesday or whatever, punch it all in. They get the recipes, you know, scaled exactly for that portion, but then they can pick any date range, any date range, Monday through Friday or whatever, depending on when their deliveries come, push a button. And like literally in about a second, they get a list of every ingredient needed for every recipe in that date range based on the number of portions. So it’s like this, this really hard job that they would kill an afternoon doing and do a bad job in many cases. Literally it’s just like handed to them and it’s perfect. That’s like one of the features. Yeah.


Josh: Well, you know, and I think it’s so relevant. So in our industry we’re blessed, you know, Lucas and I get to tour a lot of communities as I’m sure you do in some of these communities, just have such awesome dining programs. 


Joe: Absolutely. 


Josh: They have robust chefs with great skillsets. It’s fine dining and different things like that. But then there’s others that, you know, maybe in a rural area or they may be designed to appeal to people that, hey, maybe you know, we can’t afford the Ritz Carlton. We’re on a more limited budget, but we still deserve quality. 


Joe: Yeah. 


Josh: We still do deserve good food, good quality. So it sounds like your tool is a way to up the IQ for let’s say an average chef to be able to take that from a mediocre quality to a higher quality, but to keep it affordable, which I think is one of the biggest challenges with any quality food program, right? 


Joe: I couldn’t have said it better in fact, I don’t think I did. But that’s, that’s, that’s absolutely the gist of it. And also a component I’m leaving out that I need to add. All the regulatory stuff is still super important. It’s not like we’re substituting really good food, but you know, the nutritional values and all that stuff’s gonna have to want to know everything in the program. And I think this is obviously really important for any community, especially if it’s beyond assisted living. Everything’s approved by dieticians, dieticians as signatures, the menus, the recipes, there’s a daily modified diet, spreadsheets included for, you know, people on puree, diet and renal diets, et cetera. So it’s kinda the best of both worlds. You get a chef developing the, what the food will be, but it’s all got the blessings of registered dieticians cause that’s, you know, you need both halves.


Josh: Sure.


Lucas: That’s a great topic to transition to on the nutritional point. So food is a forefront in our culture right now. There’s a big push for plant based diets as a big push for clean eating. You know, trying to minimize the amount of chemicals that we’re putting into our bodies. And to Josh’s earlier point, the budget for feeding our elders in these communities sometimes is very, very minimal. And I’m hoping that we are getting to a point with companies like Amazon and buying Whole Foods. You know, they have made nutritious organic products more attainable for people that were making that switch from your traditional processed, packaged food is actually becoming more of a budget neutral switch over to organic. And I’m thinking and hoping that there is a major play in the senior market because nutrition is clearly good for everybody. But if you have cognition issues, dementia, any sort of neurological effects being on a low inflammatory diet could really help you in your quality of lifestyle. I’d love for you to talk and speak to that.


Joe: That’s a, that’s a huge, huge topic and it’s really important. One of the ways, and again, I’m generalizing a lot and I don’t mean to as Josh said some, some operators just do fantastic food. This is more addressed to the ones who, who aren’t. 


Josh: Sure. 


Joe: But one of the easiest ways for an operator to cut corners, both in terms of labor and in terms of food costs is to really rely on processed food. Instead of them making lasagna, which is really not that hard to make. They’re just buying basically big industrial TV dinners. All the soups are out of a can. Desserts are all frozen. They really lean on processed foods. Truth is if you cooked and most of my recipes are from scratch. Not, not fancy, hard to cook food, but, but just made from scratch. People love meatloaf. People love fried chicken. It’s there’s, you know, we serve meatloaf and fried chicken, but it’s actually made the way your mom would make it. It’s not frozen fried breaded fried chicken. It’s not meatloaf that came like in a frozen cube, a continental food, but the continent is not Antarctica, that kind of thing. So fresh made from scratch food. It’s just inherently healthier, better for the digestion, better like you said and kind of cognitive thing. 


You mentioned organic, organic I think from, from what I’m seeing is still kind of a little out of reach but budget wise, but still if this is frozen food and this is food made from scratch with non organic ingredients like real carrots and real onions and you know, and real chicken breasts and instead of like just a frozen MSG, salt-induced haze it’s going to be healthier. It’s going to be less money. I mean it’s, it’s, it’s cheaper to buy the ingredients for vegetable soup than to buy pre-made vegetable soup. It’s not that hard to make and it just, it’s just so much healthier for the residents.


I find working with the dieticians, it’s not that hard at all to get dieticians to approve my menus because it’s all made from scratch. And like one of the first things I worry about is, well what’s the sodium content? Well, when you make it from scratch compared to frozen entrees like the sodiums- 


Lucas: -you get to control it. 


Joe: Yeah, it’s the only put in as much as you need and not trying to preserve it for, you know, for millennia. So yeah, homemade, not even fancy restaurant quality food, you know, fancy restaurant quality food, but just homemade the way your mom would have made it or the way the residents used to make it for themselves for years. That’s, that’s what my focus is. And it’s just, it’s healthier, it’s cheaper. 


And the other thing is I’ve seen in so many places now, you know, we go in before they, before they’ve upped their ante and they’re serving really not really great food. Sit down with a resident, you eat with them and boy, they’re miserable. I mean, all they do is complain about how terrible the food is and it kind of bounce off each other and it’s just like where, whereas when the food’s good, I mean, they’re like lining up down the hall and they’re like, you know, talking about, you know, their grandkids and they’re talking about the pleasant things cause the food’s pleasant. Oh, you know, this reminds me of something my aunt used to make. So the whole dynamic changes when the food is good.  


Joe: You think about when you go out to restaurants with your friends, it’s a fun time. Whereas if you’re, you know, it’s been a while for me, but when you’re eating in a college cafeteria, and the food’s not so good, what you do? You complain about the food. Well, it’s the same thing whether you’re 20 or you’re 85.


Lucas: It scales. There’s an emotional quality to eating. Yeah. we’re, we’re reliant on him. We have to stop multiple times today to sustain our bodies and to make that an event and something that’s pleasing. There’s a huge emotional quotient to that. 


Josh: Absolutely. The social aspect too, of breaking bread together, lack of a better term. I mean that’s been something societal for years and generations way before even our great grandparents and for these residents, it’s a very point. You know, I go back to I think the next generation is not only going to request but demand these options, but the real secret ingredient so to say is as how do we do that on an individualized type basis and keep it somewhat affordable. I do think the industry has to allocate more dollars to their dining budget at some point. That’s, that’s probably a problem within itself, but we can do a better job of what we’re actually putting out there for the dollars that we are putting out there.


Joe:  I totally agree and what you’re talking about, you know,  the social thing and everything. You know, so many residents, they’ve lost so much by their, at that time of their lives, they don’t get to have their pets anymore. In most situations, maybe a number of their best friends have passed on. One of the, the bodies don’t do what they used to do. But one of the last things they have that they can really enjoy is food. And they, and, and I think it’s really their, you see their faces light up when you put something in front of them that they really liked. It reminds them of something, you know, their wife used to make them or their, their moms used to make them. It’s just really nice to see. It’s one of the last things they still have, even if they can’t taste quite as well as we might, but they can still taste enough to enjoy it. And it just, I think it just triggers really great memories for a lot and I see it. I mean, I just sit there and watch him. It’s, it’s cool.


Josh: It’s still, regardless of our age, it’s what fuels our body. So it’s such a relevant conversation and we probably haven’t talked about this enough on our podcast. 


Josh: It’s definitely one of those deep dive topics and senior living that touches every senior living community. No matter what provider size you are, no matter what community, it’s important to every single person because it’s part of the daily life of every person, right? 


Lucas: Well, and looking out into the future as the boomers age into this space, I think of my parents, I think of your parents and I’ll tell you what to say they’re picky is an understatement. And it’s not even really just picky. They’re educated. They have a diverse sense of taste. And I’m telling you that healthy component is not, it’s going to be a non negotiable. They’re not going to sit down and eat GMO, MSG-ridden food, they’re going to be very educated on what they have. They’re going to be educated on what they want and the reasons why, because it’s going to affect their health. 


Josh: Well, and absolutely. So one of the things too, I mean, we’re seeing it. We’re now, I think some senior living providers are actually going to the hospitality industry to think, you know, these, these next generation, they’re demanding much more healthcare to be delivered in a hospitality way. No different. The boomer generation has high expectations because the restaurant industry delivers at a high level. So, you know, I think we’re going to have to take some wisdom from some guys like yourself that have come from that world the tools that you’ve used through the years to deliver high quality, high value, and we’re going to have to adapt and adopt, you know, those kinds of things in our space. No longer the status quo, right?


Joe: And it’ll be better for everybody.


Josh: Right. 


Joe: I mean, it really will be better for everybody and Lucas you’re absolutely right. This is the oldest I’ve ever been, and I mean, it’s a, I mean, it’s like people are only 20, 25 years older than me are moving in. So they’ve never done without, I mean, it’s like the Woodstock generation. God bless them. They’ve never done without. It’s not as opposed to like the greatest generation lived through the depression. I mean, I see. I, again, it was new to me like seven years ago. They’re pretty, not all the time, but there’s a lot of truth to saying they were happy to eat three square meals a day, whereas the baby boomers forget about it. I mean, they, they, that’s a good place to start, but they want everything to taste good. They want things to remind themselves of when they went to Italy or they went to France and they’ve, they’ve lived a really good life and they’re not going to stop now. 

Josh: Food’s an experience. It’s just like any other experience in your senior living community. So how are we making food the experience that our residents want? And so I think that’s really cool. 

Joe: That’s in a nutshell. 

Lucas: Well, Joe, this is a healthy conversation and it’s a conversation we need to be having more. I think as the future is upon us, we’re going to have to have more dialogue in this category. It’s going to be something that’s going to be demanded. Like you said, Josh, so appreciate you coming out and spending some time with us. 

Joe: Thank you so much. 

Lucas: Absolutely. 

Joe: Thank you for having me. 

Josh: It’s awesome to have you on the show. Thanks for your time. 

Lucas: We’ll connect to you in our show notes so people connected with you and thanks for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

Thank you to our supporting partners NRC Health, OneDay, TIS, Morrison Living, Argentum, Solinity, and The Bridge Group Construction. 

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Episode 114: Joe Abuso