Gone are the days when cafeterias and pre-plated dining made the cut in senior living. Now, in order to stay competitive, providers are incorporating five-star restaurants into their offerings. And that means staying on the cutting edge of all that is offered outside of the community walls.

But creating a true restaurant requires time and attention, not to mention some inspiration from an executive chef who “gets it.”

Enter: Chef Jackie Nabong, Hawaii native and veteran Roy’s restaurants chef, known nationwide for its Hawaiian and Asian fusion cuisine.

“Chef Jackie” brings those same influences to some of her creations at Oakmont Senior Living’s Capriana community in Brea, Calif. And while some residents have been skeptical at first, she says, the dining experience has become more than just about food.

While some communities are retrofitting the restaurant-style concept, Oakmont had the benefit of building its dining program from the ground up for the continuing care retirement community’s opening in March 2013. Oakmont Senior Living has developed more than 30 communities in the western United States and is family owned and operated.

The building includes several dining venues, including indoor and outdoor patio options as well as two kitchens: one traditional restaurant kitchen and the other a sweeping exhibition kitchen that not only serves as a food hub, but also an entertainment and programming portal.

Residents enjoy the food from a taste perspective, but they also engage with it as an activity, Nabong explains, in learning about new foods and styles of cooking.

“I have a strong fusion style of cooking,” Nabong says. “It’s not just one style such as French or Japanese. I like to incorporate all nationalities. It may sound weird in a menu description, but as I tell our residents, ‘Trust me.’”

New Takes on Old Staples

Capriana, located about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles, benefits from a relatively long growing season including temperate winters and dry, desert summers.

Nabong’s menu includes daily selections from the on-site herb and vegetable gardens such as fresh lettuces, tomatoes, peppers and assorted herbs, often reserved for the special menu items.

Those specials, two entrees, one appetizer and assorted desserts each evening, are planned a day or two in advance, at which point the dining staff makes the menu available in the community’s on-site bistro.

Then begins the buzz about what’s for dinner, Nabong says.

“Residents may at first hold back when they see the descriptions — when I take something Japanese and marry it with something Italian,” Nabong says. “But I like giving them that option of actually searching out the items that are in the menu. Many residents pick up the menu in the bistro, and go home and Google words

[they don’t know]. So when they come to dinner they will tell me what they learned.”

The menu skews seafood and innovative takes on staple items. Lamb may be prepared with a passion fruit glaze rather than the standard mint jelly, and roast beef is plated to look like art, Nabong says.

Resident input comes into play as well, with featured options from some of the residents’ own kitchens — albeit they may not be the ones doing the cooking.

“I always ask residents if they want to see something they have made, they can give me the recipe. We’ll make it. We’ve had Mrs. Chang’s BBQ sauce and Mrs. Hertz’ ambrosia salad. I want them to be comfortable with the menu,” she says.

Given Nabong’s fusion and Pacific influences, the menu at Capriana’s main restaurant, Portofino, spans lunch items from surf and turf sliders to lemongrass grilled organic chicken salad with scallions, crispy noodles and peanut dressing.

Brought to the lunch menu by popular demand: sushi, which makes multiple appearances on the menu including California rolls, shrimp rolls, and lobster dynamite rolls topped with avocado.

Rock shrimp Louis features tomatoes grown in the adjacent garden and Angus beef is prepared with macadamia goat cheese.

Around holidays, special events such as a luau or hosting local mayoral candidates will dictate special preparations as well as the use of Capriana’s in-house rotisserie or pizza oven.

“I have been approached many times from outsiders wanting to come in and dine here,” Nabong says. “But we are not open to the public. We joke with them, the only way you can come and eat is if you live here, or make friends with our residents. Or call us when you are 65.”

Beyond the Menu

Capriana, which opened its doors to residents in March 2013, is now more than 90% occupied among its 79 independent living units and is more than 50% occupied among its memory care property, Villagio, that shares the same campus.

Oakmont’s dining team as well as the chefs at each of its properties have incorporated dining not only into programming, but also into various marketing opportunities in the community.

Capriana recently participated in the city’s local Taste of Brea event, showcasing menu items from Brea’s local restaurants. Similar participation is planned for nearby Taste of Yorba Linda in an adjacent town.

Creating interest in the community’s dining options appeals not only to the outside community, but also to the residents themselves on an ongoing basis.

Nabong is planning to roll out cooking classes in the near future to teach lessons such as pizza making and rolling sushi. Residents also share their dining experience with a welcome party for up to 25 people with a special menu planned upon each resident’s move-in.

Ongoing wine dinners with selections curated by Oakmont’s dining services staff feature a four-course wine pairing served on-site.

An open, exhibition-style kitchen brings the food front and center for residents and their guests, who sometimes include prospective residents, or their family and friends.

A rotisserie oven — not often found in senior living — is visible to all those who are dining in order to showcase the food and provide slow roasted options.

“We may first cook it in the back [kitchen], but here we have it turning in the front for the smell wafting through,” Nabong says. “And for the conversation.”

Written by Elizabeth Ecker