Following several fulfilling years of working as a chef at fine-dining restaurants in southeast Michigan, Canton native Joel Vassallo changed up his career course and accepted a job preparing meals for a senior-living community in West Bloomfield.
Initially hesitant about his decision, Vassallo — a graduate of Schoolcraft College’s renowned School of Culinary Arts — quickly embraced the change of scenery.
“One evening I was walking around asking the residents how they liked their dinner and one gentleman, who was a Holocaust survivor, looked at me and said, ‘This is a meal fit for a king’,” Vassallo recounted, smiling. “The meal was nothing fancy — it was a simple baked-chicken dish — but when I heard that, it was like, ‘This is why I love what I do’.”
Almost six years ago, Vassallo brought his talents to Canton’s Waltonwood at Carriage Park senior-living center, which Friday celebrated its annual and much-anticipated “Taste of Waltonwood” event.
A free culinary extravaganza for residents and their families, the event is like the Super Bowl and March Madness all wrapped into one for the center’s culinary professionals, who embrace an opportunity to demonstrate their food-related artistry through live-action stations and eye-catching food displays.
“This is a great event because it allows our culinary team to really showcase our talent and skill throughout southeast Michigan,” said Vassallo, who resides in Livonia with his wife Laura and two children. “We put a lot into this and we are grateful for the appreciation the residents and their families show us.”
“Taste of Waltonwood” is held in observance of National Well-derly Day, which promotes health and vitality for the 25% of Michiganders who are over age 60.
The center’s in-house pastry chefs, including Canton High School and Schoolcraft College graduate Catherine Grima, provided delectable desserts and fresh baked goods throughout the day and Waltonwood’s life-enrichment contingent prepared an indoor vegetable and herb-planting class for guests, who were invited to take home the results of their efforts.
Vassallo said preparing meals for people enjoying their golden years is incredibly satisfying.
“We focus on preparing simple foods done right,” Vassallo said. “We’re cooking for a very meat-and-potatoes generation, many of whom either spent their entire lives cooking for others or having someone cook for them, so there are high expectations.
Simple yet special
“One night we may prepare a meal of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and green beans, which may not seem fancy, but we’re using fresh ingredients and everything is cooked to perfection. We’re taking a basic meal and turning it into something special.”
Vassallo said he loves hearing feedback from the residents, who he added aren’t shy about offering their opinions on his efforts.
“We’ll hear everything from, ‘The water is too wet’ to ‘This is the greatest meal I’ve ever eaten’,” Vassallo said, smiling. “They’ll let us know how we’re doing, which is great because that’s the only way we’re going to know what we’re doing is working.”
Earning a culinary arts degree from Schoolcraft College was one of the best career choices he has made, Vassallo asserted.
“I think the most important thing I learned at Schoolcraft was the basics of cooking,” he said. “How to cut vegetables, things of that nature. Before you can reach your culinary potential, it’s so important to build a foundation by learning the basics.”
Judging by the dining room filled with satisfied smiles and pleasant buzz of conversation on Friday afternoon at Waltonwood Carriage Park, Vassallo and his colleagues learned well.
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