The community dining room shut down. The café closed its doors. During the COVID-19 quarantine, residents at a Pennsylvania retirement community got all their meals delivered to their doorsteps, where they ate at home on their own to prevent a virus outbreak.
The coronavirus put a stop to socializing around meals at The Hill at Whitemarsh in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania. But executive chef Adam Ochs dreamed up the idea for a meal-kit service that could help residents prepare restaurant-quality food in their home kitchens and continue to feel engaged with their community.
Calling it “Green Apron” as a play on the popular Blue Apron meal-kit delivery service, Ochs put together boxes of premeasured ingredients and instructional videos to help residents navigate broiling, dicing and sautéing. The July offering featured broiled halibut with green tomato salsa, mango-stuffed crepes and homemade granola.
The goal was to provide residents with an activity to do at home, while still having interaction with Ochs. Pre-pandemic, the chef would often entertain community members with live cooking demonstrations.
"We were trying to think of ways we can engage the residents, and one of the first things I thought of were cooking demonstrations,” Ochs says. “We wanted to give them something they could do on their own at home.”
A fun quarantine break
Anne Cantor, 79, who lives at The Hill, says the Green Apron meals, which are provided for a fee, gave her a valuable morale boost during her time in quarantine. “I did it because it was something to do, and because the food was fabulous,” Cantor says. “It was something that I never would have made."
Cantor has limited trips outside her home in recent months due to health concerns and says preparing the Green Apron meal kit gave her a fun break from her usual routine. “It was like Julia Child. The chef was preparing ingredients and talking through it,” Cantor says of Ochs's instructional videos, which were broadcast on The Hill at Whitemarsh's television channel.
Carol Beam, 71, also a resident at The Hill, was impressed by the quality of each dish. “It was a great learning experience, making a bunch of things that were of really restaurant level,” says Beam, who cooks for herself regularly and also has tried Blue Apron.
Beam found it helpful to follow along with the video instructions provided by Ochs, and used the written directions for additional guidance. “I've never made anything like the mango crepes, but I'll definitely be doing it again because you think about it and your taste buds start jumping around,” Beam says.
Gaining confidence in the kitchen
Several residents sent Ochs pictures of their fully prepared meals, and the project has been a learning experience for the chef. Producing the instructional video was different from his usual cooking demonstrations.
"I'm used to speaking to a roomful of residents,” Ochs says. “Just as much as they enjoy looking at me, I feed off of looking at them and making eye contact and taking questions.”
Ochs says he plans to expand his meal-kit delivery options in coming months to offer residents greater flexibility in selecting the meals they would like to prepare. After feedback from residents, he also decided to deliver one meal at a time to make the idea of preparing the food less overwhelming. Meals will be catalogued so that residents can request certain items anytime they want to prepare them.
"It takes up a lot of time where they can be happy doing this task,” he says. “They can get some confidence and positive reinforcement from seeing themselves make a dish on their own.”