Chef Rich Fiorentino was accustomed to preparing fine cuisine in top restaurants, most recently at the American Club in Kohler.
He now prepares meals at Heritage Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Port Washington, a job he took nine months ago and said he loves more every day.
“It’s rejuvenated my passion for food and cooking,” Fiorentino, 40, said. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be cooking anymore if I hadn’t come here. Everyone — all my chef friends and especially my
mother — think it’s crazy because I really thrived on the accolades. They expected me to last two months.
“But they see how happy I am, and I think some of my chef friends are reconsidering their careers.
“This is giving back. This is like feeding my family because we’re all family here. I’m providing food that they like and is healthy for them. My food is helping them heal.”
Fiorentino’s been offered eight restaurant jobs since he’s been at Heritage, but said he doesn’t want to return to that lifestyle. He’s discovered a world he never experienced before.
“My favorite meal to prepare now is breakfast because it’s new to me,” Fiorentino said. “I never worked in places that served breakfast. I would work until 1 or 2 in the morning, and I never got up before 10:30 or 11 a.m. Morning was a time of day I knew nothing about.
“Now, I get up at 5:30, walk to work, turn on the radio and have a cup of coffee. I love it. We have the most choices for breakfast. After breakfast, most of the residents have some type of therapy, and they need a good breakfast to do that.”
Fiorentino and his staff make 90% of what they serve from scratch, using mostly fresh fruit and vegetables. Homemade soup is available every day for the residents and staff.
He doesn’t put rich sauces on dishes as he did at the American Club and the cuts of meat aren’t prime, but Fiorentino said he makes great-tasting food while staying within his food budget.
“I know it’s good because we taste everything we cook here. Even if it’s pureed, I taste it,” Fiorentino said.
“I don’t want them to eat anything I wouldn’t eat. We season to taste, just as we do in a restaurant. The older we get, the fewer taste buds we have, so we want it seasoned more. We can do that without adding salt. ”
Fiorentino was practically born into his career. His mother is a classically trained cook who manages a country club restaurant in Texas, where he grew up.
“She couldn’t afford child care so I went with my mother every night to the restaurant,” Fiorentino said. “I’ve had a knife in my hand since I was 9.”
He started cooking at restaurants when he was 18. In his mid-30s, he enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu Culinary College in Minneapolis-St. Paul, completing an 18-month course in classical French cooking that entitles him to wear the classic tall white chef’s hat and be called chef.
“That really elevated my career,” he said. “Culinary school was fun. Because of my experience, I had a leg up over many of the students. We had contests at school, and I loved to compete. I competed in barbecues for nine years.”
While going to school, Fiorentino was a chef for Hilton hotels in the Twin Cities. He joined the American Club in 2012.
“I was intrigued by the American Club because of the prestige of the place. They emphasize fine dining, and they’re known around the world for that,” he said.
“It wasn’t a good fit. When people spend $70 for a dinner, they expect almost more than can be delivered. That attitude of entitlement started to wear on me.
“Here, they’re so appreciative. The majority of the people here don’t have much control over their lives, except for their food. The other day, a woman wanted a taco for lunch. Her face lit up when I told her we could do that. That’s my reward.
“I love seeing my dining room full and hearing the buzz of conversation. I’m trying to get more people who eat in their rooms to come to the dining room.”
When Fiorentino, his wife Katie and their daughter Kaela, now 19, moved to Wisconsin, his wife, a nurse, became the unit manager at Heritage.
“She would talk about how awful the food was there and how bad their diets were,” Fiorentino said. “I told her to tell me the next time they’re looking for somebody. I was getting so burned out in the restaurant business.”
Fiorentino took the job with the stipulation that he could have creative control over the food, could reorganize the kitchen and could select the kitchen staff.
He changed his job title from dietary manager to culinary manager.
“I don’t have many rules, but I have a no ‘no’ policy. We never say, ‘No,’” he said. “Anybody can have anything they want anytime of the day (adjusted to their dietary needs). One gentleman missed his grandmother’s meatballs. He gave me the recipe, and when we have spaghetti and meatballs, it’s his grandmother’s meatballs.”
Although Fiorentino loves eating and knows how to cook almost anything, he said he wasn’t very knowledgeable about the nutritional value of the rich foods he prepared.
That’s something he had to learn at the nursing home, and he lost 92 pounds in the process.
He, in turn, helped the staff figure out how to keep residents hydrated when they didn’t want to drink water.
He puts fresh fruit in a water cooler that residents can drink from any time. The cooler has be refilled often.
Fiorentino not only knows the names of all the residents and their food likes and dislikes, but enjoys visiting with them, learning about their families, their careers and interests.
He has great respect and gratitude for veterans and delivers their meals with a salute.
His daughter, who does most of the cooking at home, works in the housekeeping department at Heritage.
“She’s my biggest critic and is the first to tell me the soup needs more garlic or onion,” he said.
Fiorentino took a large pay cut in his new job, but said he and his family are happy.
“It’s not about the money. It never has been,” he said. “I’ve taken jobs that put me over the $100,000 bracket. My wife and I have always lived fairly simply, so it wasn’t a huge concern.”
Fiorentino enjoys preparing food for Heritage residents, but said he has no desire to own such a facility.
“I don’t want to own anything because then I’ll have to grow up,” he said. “It’s too much responsibility, and you have to worry about the bottom line. I just want to be able to cook good food for these people and talk with them.”
Image information: Chef Rich Fiorentino stood proudly in his organized kitchen at Heritage Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Port Washington. Photo by Sam Arendt