Employee Spotlights

Make Your Mark: Ken’s Big Kitchen



Vibrant fruit carvings by Chef Ken.

The mission of Presbyterian Homes & Services (PHS), “to honor God by enriching the lives and touching the hearts of older adults,” is fulfilled when the actions of our employees demonstrate our stated values. In doing so, they “make their mark” upon those we serve. In our continuing series, “Make Your Mark,” we introduce you to PHS employees who are living out these values.

In today’s Make Your Mark spotlight, we share a story from the in-house TV series called Ken’s Big Kitchen at Johanna Shores in Arden Hills, MN. Each episode features fruit and vegetable carving by Ken McDonald, who is the Nutrition and Culinary Director, and those he mentors, Suong Vo and Madelyn West, who are both Cooks and Servers.

While they might say they’re simply “playing with their food,” others recognize that they’re delivering an absorbing experience for residents with each new episode of Ken’s Big Kitchen.

Since May, Ken’s Big Kitchen has aired twice a month on Johanna Shores’ in-house, closed-caption TV channel. The COVID crisis awakened the possibility of showcasing the culinary team’s unique talents for the benefit of residents who are social distancing

Life Enrichment Director Jane Chagnon said, “Residents are enjoying the show very much. I hear a lot of ‘Wows’ and ‘That’s so cool.’” She describes residents in the Care Center as “glued to their TVs, fascinated by the process.” Among staff members, she says, “We tease Ken that he has his ‘groupies.’”

Image of fruit carvings being created on a television.Beyond entertained, Jane explains, “Residents are also impressed that Ken has been teaching his skill to his staff.” Through his mentorship, Ken has taught Suong and Madelyn how to use special culinary tools to carve intricate designs on hand selected fruits and vegetables from the local market, such as pineapple, watermelon, honey dew, cantaloupe, rutabaga, turnips, cucumbers and squash.

From flower arrangements to animals to cakes, Ken, Suong and Madelyn are delivering a new theme each episode, allowing their creative juices to flow. Delighting residents is the harvest of the culinary team’s craft and attention to detail. Every time residents get a glance at their work, Ken hopes “they see something different,” he says.

Suong said, “I enjoy seeing residents smile when they see their food.” Madelyn, who is studying at the University of Minnesota to become a registered dietician, said, “This is something I definitely didn’t learn in school. Ken has taught me.”

Presbyterian Homes logo carved into fruit.

PHS Corporate Dietician Katie Eisen notes, “ Most people have heard the saying that we ‘eat with our eyes.’ The instant we visualize something on a plate, we start to taste it.” She explains, “Colorful fruits and vegetables — which are packed with nutrients — easily draw our attention with vibrant shades of the rainbow. Plate presentation is key for ensuring good [nutrition] and satisfied residents.” She adds, “Ken and his team are going above and beyond to bring excitement and fun to residents during these incredibly challenging times — and using healthy foods to do so!”

Prior to joining PHS in 2015, Ken gained experience as chef garde manger (French for “keeper of the food”), developing elaborate buffet presentations at senior living communities across the U.S. He has mentored Suong since 2015, and Madelyn joined the fun in the midst of the pandemic, making Ken’s Big Kitchen a team effort.

Ken recalls, “When I first started carving fruit and vegetables at Johanna Shores, I noticed Suong peeking around the corner at what I was doing.” He explains, “I asked her if she wanted to try and she said sure,” noting “Suong was a very quick learner and caught on fast. As time went on, she continued to perfect the carving I showed her.”

Suong says she gained her first impression of fruit carving while on vacation in Cancún. “I saw the buffet was very pretty, so I paused to look up close, and it made me very, very happy.” She explains, “So I wished I could do it too, but I didn’t know how.” Later that year, Ken began preparing for the holiday season by carving fruit for the dining room celebration. Suong says, “It made me so happy, so I said, ‘Oh, I can learn from you! Will you teach me?’” She adds, “Ken shares with us, and we love having him here.”

It wasn’t long before Ken’s mentees influenced and inspired his craft. “I challenged Suong to break out of her comfort zone and try other pieces to carve,” Ken says. “At first, she was skeptical, but soon tried larger and different carvings.” He praises Suong’s talent and effort, explaining, “Suong now not only carves melons but carves vegetables in flowers and makes flower arrangements.” YouTube tutorials and practice at home are helping Suong stretch and refine her own carvings and style.

Madelyn carves intricate pattern into cantaloupe.

Meanwhile, in just a few months Madelyn has made an impact as well. “As a mentor to an apprentice,” Ken says, “I have learned as much from Madelyn as I hope she has learned from me. She challenges and encourages me to expand my carving repertoire to include pieces that I may not have otherwise tried to carve.” For example, he says, “When I asked what we should carve for our next episode of Ken’s Big Kitchen, Madelyn responded with ‘Let’s carve cakes!’ because why not?” he grins.

Richard Groshens, who is the Corporate Director of Nutrition and Culinary, appreciates the value Ken’s service brings. “Ken really shines in his mentoring ability. Staff get an opportunity to learn something they never thought they’d learn. His work elevates the residents’ experience like a high-end hotel.”

And for those with a passion for creating exceptional dining experiences, Richard has a message. Unlike the high turnover in the hotel and restaurant industry, Richard says Presbyterian Homes & Services offers culinary staff “a sense of belonging and stability.” Our senior living communities are expanding — in other words, he says, “our customers are not going away,” adding, “They’re growing.”

We at PHS applaud the fruitful, skilled work of Ken, Suong and Madelyn in Ken’s Big Kitchen and all PHS culinary staff. Your service excellence delights when we are all hungry for inspiration.

Do you like playing with food? Join the PHS culinary team! Find opportunities and apply at www.preshomes.org/careers/culinary-roles.



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