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Ask Lisa Sanders what’s cooking, and you might think you’re listening to a top chef competition on the Food Network: Dishes like pan-seared breast of chicken in Marsala wine sauce, chicken cordon bleu wrap, and bourbon barbecue glazed salmon were among the items featured recently on the menu at Fox Run at Orchard Park, the senior living community where Sanders works as executive chef. She oversees 40-50 food service staffers, who offer casual and private dining and catering. A typical day includes breakfast for 30-40, lunch for 70 and 120-150 people nightly for dinner. That’s in addition to the three daily meals provided for those living in the skilled nursing and assisted living units.

A culinary graduate of Johnson & Wales University, she’s also regional executive chef with Morrison Living, the national food service company, overseeing food service staff at six other senior living facilities. Sanders, who came to Fox Run six years ago, recently took first place among 21 chefs from across the United States in the Women in Culinary Competition; and was named Chef of the Year by Compass Group, Morrison’s parent company. She’s helping to dispel the myth that cooking for older adults in retirement communities and nursing homes doesn’t have to mean smashed peas and flavorless food.

How did you get into cooking?
I always loved cooking. When I was little, I was in a dance competition and had to do a solo for the recital. I wore a chef hat and had my kitchen set on stage with me. I was always with grandma and mom cooking, making memories with them. My grandma was a home economics teacher, so it was good, old American family cooking.

What’s it like to cook in a senior living environment?
We like to break the mold, that old stereotype of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and peas all the time or pureed foods. We do real, restaurant-style service and food, with menus that change. The kitchen is really nice and way bigger than a typical restaurant. That gives us room to play and do a lot of fun things. Of course we have regulations and standards we have to follow, but we can match that with the freedom to do specials, so it’s a little bit of both worlds.

What was it like cooking in the chef competition?
The women were selected from all sectors: education, business and industry, sports arenas and health care from all over the United States. It was like Iron Chef or Chopped, where we had a few ingredients we had to use, and the other things you could be creative with and it was timed. The first day I made a Moroccan salmon dish with a vegetable tagine and a Moroccan biscotti with a yogurt cilantro lime sauce drizzled on top. And I made a dessert with chocolate filled biscuits deep-fried and a dried hazelnut with cowboy rub and sugar to dip in. Oh, and I also had a spiced blackberry sauce with a mango lassi, a yogurt-based drink.

So how do you bring that creativity to the job?
We have cooking classes monthly for all residents, so they can just watch and eat. We also have teaching kitchens where they get to participate, and that’s pretty fun. That’s why we love working in at a place like this. You get the best of both worlds. The latest I’m here is 7:30 unless we have some crazy party, so that’s another good part of working here, the work-life balance. I get to see my kids every night before bed. That’s definitely better than a restaurant.

Do you prefer to cook at home, or go out?
I have two little ones at home, so I don’t make salt and pepper fried shrimp, but I do the cooking at home and we have dinner every night, whether it’s something quick and easy or more homestyle cooking. Going out, with two little ones, it’s not as much as I’d like. When I get to go out, if anyone’s going to cook for me, I’m happy for the most part.

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