With catering being an essential part of ensuring nutritional needs are met within care homes, Giles Conroy, Executive Chef at Gracewell Healthcare, talks about what he does to lead innovation and his vision for the future.
Giles Conroy’s journey to the care home kitchen has been an interesting one. Before joining the care sector 11 years ago, Giles was a high-end chef whose work took him from the corporate world of England’s four and five-star hotels, to Spain, Thailand and Sri Lanka. Upon his return to the UK, he joined the kitchen of a bespoke unit caring for people with brain injuries, where he says his eyes were opened to a “different dimension of cooking.”
“People I knew questioned why I didn’t continue with the upmarket jobs, but I quickly realised that I really valued the opportunity to build personal relationships with patients and residents,” Giles says about his first experience in the care industry. He joined the sector permanently when he became Executive Chef at Gracewell, and soon “never looked back.” After working 15-hour days seven days a week in a rather impersonable world, working at Gracewell has shown Giles just how he can make a difference to the lives of individuals.
Nevertheless, his experience with premium equity food continued to play a large part in Giles’s new role. It was what lay behind his decision to personally meet with residents to create bespoke and high-quality menus that not only met their nutritional needs but proved to be enjoyable and delicious. His travels to the other side of the world meant that Giles also had experience with a variety of vibrant and exotic cuisines. This soon proved invaluable in bringing a degree of authenticity to his food.
Creating tailored menus also demonstrated to Giles just how important listening is to a career in care. As he points out, care communities contain individuals “who have lived lives across the world and are full of the most interesting stories about their experiences.” This proved to Giles that food can be what he calls “the nutrition of life” for those who really need it – and can even play a part in recreating fond memories of past experiences for older residents.
To ensure that his menus meet the critical health needs of older people, however, Giles and his team of chefs work closely with nutritionists to survey the food available in each individual community. This involves looking at what fruits and vegetables are in season and utilising Gracewell’s privileged position as a large provider to offer a variety of diverse, high-quality healthy food. Giles says there is “true communication” throughout the organisation, from the kitchen to the clinical professionals, to ensure that chefs are aware of individual issues like recent weight loss, difficulties with eating, low iron levels and allergies. To ensure that the best recommendations are made, Giles says that it is “imperative that a personal relationship works well.”
Giles also works hard to ensure that his team of chefs across Gracewell’s communities feel supported and encouraged, operating an open-door policy to offer advice, leadership and understanding. This is available to any team member who feels they need it, to help them get to where they need to be and meet their full potential. This especially applies to the accolades and awards that have been entered and won over the years. Whilst Giles himself has previously claimed second place at the National Association of Care Catering’s (NAAC) Care Cook of the Year competition, he also focuses on pushing others to put themselves forward for similar honours and makes sure Gracewell has a team presence at the NAAC contest every year.
It is this approach that has helped to create what Giles identifies as a warm and welcoming community spirit at Gracewell. “Everyone, from the residents, to the team members, to the leaders, play a part in making me love my job.”
Gracewell’s team culture also proves to be invaluable when it comes to rising to any challenges of the job. Whilst Giles recognises that there are “not enough hours in the day,” the support from the Gracewell family behind him means he always feels ready to tackle whatever is thrown his way and take the best possible response. These challenges are only a small part of the trade, however. Every day, Giles is reminded of just how rewarding working in the care sector can be. Travelling across the UK to visit Gracewell’s residents means that Giles can, as he says, “be in so many people’s lives,” something that he always appreciates.
Giles’s dedication and passion for food also comes into play in the organising of events across the organisation. “From parties for Outstanding CQC reports to charitable events and in-house birthdays and activities, we always love to create celebrations with lots of amazing food on offer,” he says.
As well as continuing to always be on hand for a celebration, what does Giles have in mind for Gracewell’s future? “My vision is to start from the floor up. With a changing age census, the landscape of the care sector is changing, and I think it is time for a refresh,” Giles explains. This involves initiatives like introducing religious diets that reflect the different demographics at individual communities, and new in-house bistros and nutrition and hydration “shacks.” “I also want us to look into offering 24-hour food services and inviting friends and family in on a regular basis to sit down and enjoy our food with our residents,” he says. Giles concludes: “I want us to think outside the box with what we can do, continue to have a bespoke and tailored approach to our food, but ultimately, drive the message of the importance of family and a community home.”