Chef Thomas Russell: a Master “Cuisine Machine” in a Kitchen that Feeds Hundreds Daily

Question: What does it take to whip up close to 600 delicious, nutritious meals every day? Answer: A super chef who is part whirling dervish, part genius, as the skills needed to satisfy the varied palettes of older adults, many of whom have health challenges, require a deft hand.

In a way, our new “cuisine machine” – Chef Thomas Russell – can do it all. Russell glides through our kitchens every day, balancing an incredible number of tasks as he checks the larder supply, recipes for various menus, dietary restrictions, ingredients that must be temperature- controlled or kept separate from other foods because of allergies, food quality and freshness, and costs.

An Artist and a Chemist

If that weren’t enough, he must also be an “artist” – the one who creates fetching displays of crudités and desserts for special events, and a “chemist” who oversees the process of finely puréeing foods and making them appear like the original thing so that when those who cannot chew their food don’t feel self-conscious about eating a puréed meal when they join their friends in the dining room. That process is a little complicated but satisfying, he says.

“Basically you liquefy the food, then strain it. Then, you add thickeners based on a certain ratio. You have to be precise, so the food doesn’t become too watery. After that, we use molds to make the food look like what it did before it was liquified, even adding grill marks so you would never know it’s a purée. A splash of gravy is the finishing touch. The last thing we want to do is embarrass anyone,” he explains.

But that’s not all he does. “I also conduct frequent tastings to be sure we’re hitting the mark. For example, chicken prep means tasting it with salt and without salt; ground up and whole.” To keep salt-free dishes tasty, he’s a fan of using heavy doses of herbs.  “I’ll even season something with vegetables and fruits to awaken someone’s taste buds,” he says.


Lox and Cream Cheese on a Brioche?

Russell’s enormous passion and exactitude began when he was eight, at his mother’s knee, in fact. “She was a caterer for various organizations, and I saw firsthand the joy she felt in doing what she did. I knew at an early age that this was what I wanted to do.”

After graduating from the Center of Culinary Arts, and prior to his arrival at the Witherell via Metz Culinary Management, Russell worked for twenty years in the food service business – in corporate dining and restaurants – providing “white linen service” and “made-to-order, à la carte cooking” in New York City. This was prior to his shifting into the healthcare sector.

“I loved the life,” he recalls. “It was fast-paced and interesting, and I worked day and night.” He especially enjoyed his work in the bakeries where he says he loved creating elaborate cake decorations. “I loved doing the piping. But I also loved making bread — rolling the balls of dough, the way the flour smelled, the yeast. There is so much you can do with bread and yeast,” he insists. His favorite? “Sourdough is the best! And a lox and cream cheese sandwich on a brioche is heaven!”

During the time he was employed in Manhattan, he said he’d see lots of homeless on the streets. Being in the food business, he was aware that many of those people were barely subsisting. But, he says, he didn’t give them money. Instead, his instinct was to feed them because “I loved feeding people. I would say, ‘I won’t give you money, but I’ll invite you to a meal.’” Then he’d take them to a restaurant where they’d both have something to eat. That generous act soon came to an end, however. “One day, a cop came over and told me that he could see that by feeding the homeless, I had a good heart. But he told me that if they got sick, ‘They won’t be homeless, but you will be.’ So, that ended that.”

Appetizers, Desserts, Recycling, and a Garden

Here at the Witherell, Russell works daily with one of two dieticians – “I don’t make a move without checking with her first; she’s my boss!” – and a speech therapist who works with those who cannot chew or speak without assistance. Putting roughly 600 meals on the table daily for about 180 residents and patients, plus the café, he figures he needs to have on hand about 40 lbs. of chicken, a 40 lb. case of bananas that are slightly green (“I remove the plastic wrap which creates a hot house effect, or the next day they’d be covered with spots”), 40 lbs. of ground beef, 40 lbs. of pasta,  “40 lbs. of anything,” he says. “Typically, the people here consume about 4 ounces of protein, 3.5 ounces of starch, and 3.5 ounces of vegetables and grains each, because most are not big eaters.”


And then there are the desserts. “Some are sugar-free; some exclude certain fruits because of the risk of allergic reactions,” he notes. Even so, everyone seems to love his desserts. “You know, this business is about first and last impressions,” he explains. “Appetizers and hors d’oeuvres set the stage – the expectations for the meal to follow. But it is the desserts that are what you remember most because they come last. The tastier they are and the better they look, the better the memory of the meal.”

After planning and preparing the meals, Russell likes to grow vegetables, both in the Witherell’s outdoor organic garden, which he watches over like a proud papa, and indoors, where he likes to propagate plants. “I root lettuce, scallions and leeks – anything with roots,” he says. He’ll also remove the eyes from potatoes and plant them in the garden to create an eventual bumper potato crop.

And, he’s also into recycling. “Food has a 3-day lifespan after it’s been cooked,” he explains. “So, we utilize everything. If we serve meat or poultry one day, we put it in soups and sauces the next. Veggies have two to three uses: we can steam them, and add salt and pepper, and, if they haven’t been cross-contaminated (mixed with other foods), we can sauté or roast them. What’s not used goes into the soup the next day. Vegetables that can’t be used for any of these things go right into the compost heap near the garden.”

Where does Russell get his menu ideas? “I look at what’s seasonal. For example, in summer, I serve gazpacho, ice cold soups, and light foods. And I ask, Is it ripe? Is it fresh? Is it good? I’m always looking at quality. I keep looking ahead for the next best idea. In the culinary world, you cannot fall asleep. It’s a fast-paced industry and you must keep up to stay on top. You never want to plateau.” Clearly, he’s on top of his game.

How fortunate we are to have such committed and talented people working at the Witherell!


1 Comment

  • Thank you SO much for pouring such love and care into each meal. My mom – Gladys P – eats puréed food. It never occurred to me that her meals are prepared with so much dignity as grill marks! (I live in NC and don’t see her regularly to know.) Thank you for caring for all NW residents. God bless you. ❤️

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