At Cypress Village, senior dining goes gourmet


There was a time when the meals served at assisted living communities and other senior care facilities were equated with hospital food – nutritious, but bland and unappetizing.

As today’s senior communities adopt many of the lifestyle features of upscale resorts, however, today’s senior dining options are more likely to meet the culinary standards of a fine restaurant than a hospital. At Cypress Village in Jacksonville – a Brookdale continuing care retirement community – residents enjoy a variety of dining options designed to be both nutritious and appealing.

“The direction of Brookdale is to change a lot of the misconceptions about senior living,” Director of Dining Services Thomas Rivers said. “At Cypress Village, we give dining more of a resort-style feel than what people may expect.”

Rivers, who joined Cypress Village five years ago, came not from another senior community but instead from stints at some of the First Coast’s most popular restaurants and hotels, including Brett’s Waterway Café in Amelia Island, One Ocean in Atlantic Beach and the Casa Monica Hotel in St. Augustine. That background in upscale dining, he said, is just what administrators at Cypress Village were looking for.

“They encouraged me to take all the things I learned and work with the cooks here, showing them how to do more gourmet-style cooking,” he said. “My style is a little bit of southern with a modern twist. Really my main focus is flavor. Stepping out of the chef role (to become director) was one of the hardest things to do.”

That move allowed him, however, to put his stamp on the Cypress Village Dining Services department which, with more than 100 staff members, prepares between 600 and 800 meals each day. And today, Cypress Village residents enjoy a wide variety of culinary choices served in three separate venues, including a more formal main dining room where menu items include everything from popular comfort food staples such as braised beef brisket and salmon to sea bass, lamb and more.

“The biggest think I like to emphasize is that (the dining department) is evolving,” Rivers said. “The menu changes every day – the three main entrees change every day – and that gives the cooks a bit more ability to be creative. They’re not just prepping the same items every day.”

The facility also hosts two gourmet dinners each month, giving residents an opportunity to try even more upscale entrees. Among the epicurean offerings gourmet dinner attendees may enjoy: Wagyu beef ribeye, foie gras and duck confit, Chilean sea bass and crème brulee served with a five-star presentation in Cypress Village’s private formal dining room.

“We started doing the gourmet dinners once a month and they got so popular we’re now doing them twice a month,” Rivers said.

On the menu

To ensure that Cypress Village residents enjoy the culinary offerings, Rivers said, the facility has a dining committee that reviews the menus and offers input to ensure variety. Residents can also attend regular “menu chats” with the chefs to offer their feedback, while dining logs allow them to jot down favorite meals they’d like to see on a future menu.

Cypress Village menus also change to reflect what fresh, locally sourced ingredients are available, Rivers said, and noted that meals are tailored to reflect the special nutritional and dietary needs of residents who may have diabetes, high cholesterol or other health issues.

“We have a full-time dietitian who oversees the special diets of those residents living in skilled nursing,” Rivers said. “For independent living residents, we identify on the board every day residents with food allergies or other special dietary needs.”

Because the dining staff at Cypress Villages serves the same residents each day, Rivers added, the staff is able to offer more personalized service than a fine restaurant.

“We’ll say, ‘Mrs. Smith can’t have that – it has gluten in it,’” Rivers said. “So it’s pretty personalized. We get to build a relationship with the residents, and we do everything we can to make sure they feel comfortable.”

In addition to the daily dining services, Cypress Village also offers residents a variety of special culinary events that capitalize on the property’s lake, docks and boathouse. Among the events Rivers has inaugurated are “boathouse bashes” that allow residents to take advantage of the beautiful weather and scenery.

“We’ve done a Low Country boil, oyster roasts, Cinco de Mayo celebrations, a carnival…” Rivers said. “Our goal is to make the resident dining experience exceptional every day, so our standards are a little bit higher.”