The new chef at The Arbors Independent Living vibrates energy.
She’ll be the first to tell you she can’t sit still – she is either moving or asleep. There is no turning it off.
Chef Akira Johnston brings that energy into the kitchen at The Arbors every day, creating daily specials to enhance the month’s regular menu items. She brings that energy to working with the team in the kitchen, perfecting systems, plating and consistency.
She brings that energy to the dining room, chatting with the Residents about what they like, dislike and what they would like to see coming from the kitchen.
“I am always full of energy,” she said. “I don’t stop.”
Work in senior living
Before joining The Arbors in January, Johnston spent five years at Williamsburg Landing.
She has experience in independent living, assisted living and helped prepare meals for the nursing home at The Landing by pureeing or chopping food, whatever needed to be done to meet a Resident’s feeding and dietary needs.
Johnston is health conscious, and not just because of the environments she has worked in.
“In my free time, I’m very conscious about what I eat, about what I put in my body,” she said. “I try to eat clean and healthy. I want to give fresh fish, fresh vegetables. … I weave (nutritional factors) in by considering my personal diet too. I wouldn’t serve (the Residents) something I wouldn’t eat.”
She also is conscious of portion control, and keeping the menus high quality and appealing.
“At the end of the day, they’re ordering from this menu, not me,” she said.
She has to offer healthy, tasty options. Some well-received menu items so far have been fresh fish, coconut Thai curry and a salmon cake.
Johnston said she gets ideas from the Residents.
“I like to come out to talk to the Residents,” she said. “This has been my favorite crowd of people. I like building these relationships (and hearing their stories).”
Johnston said she doesn’t spend her off time cooking – “I am much better at mass production than a meal for two” – but loves to dine out.
“I like going out to eat,” she said. “I like trying new restaurants to see what’s out there: concepts, menu names, flavor profiles.”
Her favorite cuisine is Japanese.
“I love sushi,” she said. She may incorporate hibachi-style vegetables or chicken in a menu for The Arbors.
She also said she loves fine dining, eating at restaurants such as Ruth Chris. And sandwiches. She’s a big fan of a Wawa sandwich or a meal at Paul’s Deli in the New Town area of Williamsburg.
One of her favorite spots in Newport News is down the street from The Arbors at Thaijindesu Thai and Sushi Bar.
She travels for food. Johnston said she took a trip to Philadelphia just to compare cheesesteaks. She travels frequently to San Francisco to visit family and eat.
She compiles her ideas on a whiteboard in her office at The Arbors, taking menu inspiration from the board often.
“When it hits me, it gets added to the board,” she said.
She also stays active in her spare time, running, exercising and going to hear live music.
Getting her start
Johnston, 29, didn’t grow up wanting to be a chef. Growing up in Newport News, she attended Heritage High School, played sports and considered joining the military.
Life events took her in a different direction.
“I knew I liked food,” she said.
Johnston enrolled in the Culinary Institute of Virginia, earning her associate’s degree before joining the College Program at Walt Disney World.
What was supposed to be a three-month stint turned into several extensions that had her experience the culinary programs at Disney for a year.
She spent time at The Wave restaurant in The Contemporary Resort, the Coral Reef in EPCOT and working stations during the Food & Wine Festival.
The tasks were a little too repetitious for her – “I was too creative,” she said, to feel comfortable in the structure.
“I either had to take a full-time job there or come back home,” she said. “I wanted more. I didn’t want to stop myself right there. I came back here to finish school.”
She completed her bachelor’s degree with the Culinary Institute of Virginia.