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Retirement homes compete in cooking event
Lanier Village Estates tops Magnolia Trace from Huntsville, Ala.
Lanier Village Estates chef Tony Denauro works on part of the menu during a cooking competition at Lanier Village Sunday. A team from Lanier Village was pitted against fellow ACTS retirement communities Magnolia Trace of Huntsville, Ala. - photo by Tom Reed

It’s not your ordinary retirement home meal.

On Sunday residents and guests of Lanier Village Estates retirement community got to enjoy a three-course dinner “Top-Chef” style, complete with TV screens, emcees, judges and digital voting from the audience.

The Lanier Village Estates culinary staff competed against one of their sister retirement communities, Magnolia Trace, visiting from Huntsville, Ala.

“It was really an opportunity to showcase the skill and creativity of our chefs,” said Barbara Chappetta, corporate director of culinary and nutrition services for ACTS retirement communities.

The unveiling of the glistening ginger root-shaped ice sculpture announced the secret ingredient.

“Not ginger as in Ginger Rogers, not ginger as in ginger ale, but ginger,” said John Addess, one of the emcees of the event.

Then it was lights, camera, cook as the digital timer started with an hour and 30 minutes on the clock.

The audience watched on two television screens as a cameraman captured details of the teams’ progress. The shots showed staff slicing, stirring, wrapping and stacking ingredients, while the emcees interviewed the chefs and kept an eye on the clock.

Leading Lanier Village, Chef Tony Denauro had no problem incorporating the secret ingredient.

“I love ginger, and I love candy ginger. It’s really good for the digestive system,” he said.

Throughout the three courses Denauro used pickled ginger, crystallized ginger, fresh ginger and dried ginger.

The teams were judged on creativity, proper cooking techniques, flavor and timing.

“We’re looking for composition,” said Christopher McCook, one of the judges. “‘Does it make sense?’”

As each dish was presented to the three judges, kitchen staff from the back-of-the-house brought out smaller portions of each team’s course for the audience members.

Lanier Village Estates resident Paula Elliott was partial to Denauro’s goat cheese ginger cucumber roll appetizer, which included soy honey dressing and sesame oil, and marbled avocado .

“I’m a little prejudiced because I live at Lanier Village,” she said, “but I do like avocado.”

The residents from the opposing retirement community only took up one table, but they were loud and proud. Anne Uher, a resident of Magnolia Trace, was excited to make the trip from Huntsville and watch Chef Leticia Skinner lead her culinary team against Lanier Village.

“I think our gal has done beautifully, very clever in her planning,” she said.

Uher, a cook herself, was impressed with what both teams were able to create without a full-sized kitchen. All their equipment had to be small and portable to fit on the long, narrow table. That requires thinking ahead, she said.

Skinner was most proud of her main course, ginger and apricot-glazed chicken, with sweet potato and ginger hash.

“It’s a little spicy, yet sweet; kind of balances out the flavors,” she said.

In addition to the judges’ scores, the teams were evaluated by audience members. Though the home team had a clear advantage with more residents in attendance, Magnolia Trace did pretty well. On the appetizer and dessert categories, the teams were nearly neck and neck.

Scoring 128 out of 135 points, Lanier Village Estate’s culinary team was deemed the winner of the competition. In just two weeks it will travel to North Carolina to compete against another ACTS retirement community.

“It’s an honor to be able to (take) my team and represent our community,” Denauro said.

Though McCook was impressed with both teams, he said the Lanier Village Estates culinary staff was more prepared.

“I think they were a little sharper on practice, on refining their dishes,” he said.

All the money generated by ticket sales will go into the company’s Good Samaritan Fund, which helps residents if they are no longer able to afford to stay at one of ACTS’s communities.

“Once someone enters into an ACTS community, they’ll never ever have to leave,” said Stephen Eggles, regional vice president.

The fund raises between $800,000 and $1 million a year. But this is the first year of “Battle for the Best” cullinary competition.

The national competition will take place in September in Pennsylvania, where ACTS’s corporate headquarters are located.

“I think it’s going to become a tradition,” Eggles said.

Lanier Village Estates excecutive director Alice Eckhardt noted the pride on the culinary staff’s faces.

“It gives our staff a competitive level. They can continue to be creative,” she said.