From his early training in Switzerland to a six-week London internship under Gordon Ramsay and his role as Parliament House executive sous chef, to say chef Sandeep Vaid’s credentials are impressive would be an understatement.
He has catered for dignitaries from Australian prime ministers to the king and queen of Spain and the Sultan of Brunei.
Now, it’s the residents of Goodwin aged care facilities who are benefitting from his skill and passion – and he has never been more honoured.
“This is not just a workplace,” he says.
“I take a lot of pride in what we do. We have broken down the barrier between residents and their catering staff. Most residents know us by our names, which is a big deal.
“Food is an important part of life and that doesn’t change in aged care – we want them to enjoy every moment.”
Sandeep ditched the restaurant and hotel industry – and the 100-hour weeks that came with it – when his first child was born.
But cooking remained his passion: “There’s nothing else I could do.”
As Goodwin’s general manager for catering and hospitality, the hours are more family-friendly, but aged care catering comes with its own set of challenges. The first was changing perceptions of food in the industry.
“I knew the food would be a challenge but the mindsets were the first hurdle. Many people think food in aged care has to be bulk, boring and bland. No salt is needed, no butter – trust me, it’s a myth,” he says.
“If you work through the proper framework – consult dieticians and microbiologists and involve the residents – your outcomes are much better.
“If you ever look in our kitchens you’ll find all the things you’ll find in a restaurant kitchen. We use it all with moderation.”
In the almost seven years he has worked for Goodwin, Chef Sandeep says the food has changed significantly – and residents are loving it.
He could see no reason why a fine-dining approach could not be adapted for aged care, and not-for-profit Goodwin backed this pursuit.
“I told my then boss that we needed to reform what aged care food looks like,” he said.
“Since the residents can’t go to restaurants – why not bring the restaurants to them? So we did.”
Though fine dining isn’t always associated with simplicity, Sandeep’s philosophy certainly is.
In forming the ever-changing menus, he sources produce locally, buys “fresh, never frozen”, and often draws inspiration from the residents.
“We sometimes go to the lengths of asking residents for their old recipes and try to recreate them,” he says.
“We take fine dining principles and apply them to recipes they may have grown up with. For example, we might elevate the humble silverside to restaurant quality, our dieticians then vet it, we test it with the residents themselves and importantly, we gather feedback, which we actually use to inform changes.”
Residents who require softer consistencies don’t miss out. From Goodwin crowd favourite chicken a la king to warming Irish stew or bangers and mash, the team tinkers until they find appealing presentations.
“Three ice cream scoops of mush covered in gravy doesn’t cut it. If they require soft textures, we find a way to present them in a similar form as the other residents. It gives them dignity and is more appetising,” Sandeep says.
“I’m a big believer of the maxim, ‘you eat with your eyes first’. If the food is appetising, you might still dig in even if you don’t have much appetite. And that’s important for our residents, to keep them hydrated and fed – it plays a major role in their wellbeing.”
Creating menus is a process, from monitoring restaurant trends to costing and nutrition to resident consultation.
With six facilities under his wing, Sandeep’s team pumps out hundreds of meals a day across each site, including breakfast, lunch, dinner, supper, morning tea and afternoon tea. Menus are often tweaked to take the demographic preferences of each facility into account.
But daily catering is only part of the equation, as Sandeep’s vision for highly visual, experiential dining for residents involves interactive components and events.
Goodwin residents tour the kitchens where they can smell the freshly baked goods and roasting chooks.
Seafood paella is cooked live in the courtyards, and fish and chips are made and fried onsite. Residents partake in chef-led classes where they can relive their days in their own kitchens while safely supervised – a treasure for many. They enjoy high teas, picnics, wine tastings, private dinners and even happy hours with cocktail shakers. They’re immersed in diverse cultural days where the food and music are on-theme and carers dress the part.
“Goodwin has a vision,” Sandeep says.
“It requires a lot of courage to take a new approach to something that has been done a certain way for decades. We want to show our residents and their families that we are looking after them as though they are our own.
“At the end of the day, if they’re happy, I am happy. After all, this is their home – I work for them.”