Nourishing older Australians

Aged care catering so often misses out on the spotlight in the foodservice industry, but there are champions at work. Award-winning aged care chef June Ellem takes us behind the scenes as she works to nourish older Australians.

June Ellem in her kitchen
June Ellem in her kitchen

The Whiddon Group has a rich history of providing care and support to older people, with nearly 70 years' experience operating in regional, remote and rural New South Wales. With a solid reputation and a propensity for winning awards, it is little surprise that the aged care organisation attracts staff like June Ellem.

Ellem has been head chef at Whiddon's Grafton-based service for over two decades, attracted to the role, despite having no experience beyond home cooking, as “a fantastic and new challenge – one I was keen to try”.

Her open-minded attitude paid off, and she is a hit with the residents and the industry alike, her crowning glory arriving last year when she was named Chef of the Year in the OSCAR Aged Care Hospitality Awards 2015.

While Ellen admits that the win was “very exciting, and overwhelming”, the real reward comes each and every day as she serves up meals that bring nourishment and pleasure to society's eldest.

“I love working with older people,” she says simply, “and love seeing the happiness on the residents’ faces when they receive their meals. They’re so appreciative of the effort that goes into the meals I create, which makes it so rewarding.”

While any chef role comes with an endless myriad of challenges and logistical issues, the very specific nature of her work adds many complications, not least of which being the important role food plays in the health and wellbeing of the people in her care.

Ellem explains: “Food is very important to our residents, as it is a daily pleasure and comfort which brings about so much enjoyment, and also improves their health and wellbeing through proper nutrition.”

The 64 residents fed by Ellem each day have a diverse range of dietary requirements and medical conditions so each component of every meal must be carefully considered, and not just from a nutritional perspective.

“Some of our residents have medical conditions which require them to have food with different textures, which can be a challenge,” she says. “I’m always looking at different ways to present the texture modified meals so that [the residents] continue to enjoy their dining experience.”

Ellem also needs to take into account meal delivery and accessibility depending on the residents' physical limitations – some need help eating, and a recent issue was with residents being unable to read the menus. It is no surprise that Ellem is constantly responding to new issues and developing new approaches.

Illuminated menu boards were a recent success after various attempts by Ellem to improve the communication of the daily choices. Another break-through came with introducing hand-held ice creams as an alternative to scoops in a bowl – the former are easier to eat so now more of the residents can enjoy the treat.

When not dealing with the day to day challenges, Ellen is updating and refining her menu, changing the selection to reflect the seasons and maximise on seasonal produce. She also caters for special events such as barbecues, morning tea, birthdays and anniversary celebrations, making sure that food serves to lift the spirits and mark special moments in the lives of the residents.

The importance of aged care catering has certainly been more robustly recognised industry-wide during Ellem's 21 years in the role, and she said a notable change at Whiddon was the introduction of a Food and Beverage Manager. The new recruit “provides a great deal of support and assistance to our catering services, organisation-wide,” she says.

Catering staff Maryanne Giggins (left) and Rhonda Watts (right) with June Ellem.
Catering staff Maryanne Giggins (left) and Rhonda Watts (right) with June Ellem.

Despite the increasing recognition of the importance of aged care catering, championed by such high profile chefs as Maggie Beer, there is still much misrepresentation about life in aged care catering, serving to dissuade some from considering it as a career path.

Ellem often has to correct people on their assumptions; “When people hear that I work in aged care catering, they often say it must be so sad, but it's not. It is a very rewarding industry to work in.”

For those considering a move into this specific line of catering, Ellem has words of encouragement: “you will find more fulfilment in your career and life, and you’ll learn new things every day from the wonderful life stories told by our residents.”