Q&A with Arbors Chef: Holiday Edition

plated turkey dinner with mashed potatoes

The holidays evoke food-specific memories for everyone. We talked with Chef Akira Johnston at The Arbors Independent Living about how to create those memories for Residents.

Q: How do you conceive menus that consider resident traditions? Some Residents before moving in likely hosted holiday gatherings before and now are dependent on your team.

Chef: I just listen. That’s it. I always come to work every day with that concept. These residents are opening their homes for us to essentially work. So when I do my holiday menus, I ask, “What would you want to see on a traditional Thanksgiving menu?”

[There was a meeting with Residents to discuss, among topics, holiday menus.]

Then I try to introduce my creativity to their suggestions.

They said, “we want traditional Thanksgiving food,” which meant unsmoked turkey, mashed potatoes, yams and homemade mac and cheese. They also asked if they could take a meal to go.

I try to just listen to what it is that they want or what they want to see, because sometimes, you know, they could be spending the holidays alone. Their families could be on the side of the country. Some even on the other side of the world. So, it’s like what can we do to make this feel homier for our Residents?

Chef Akira Johnston in chef whites holds a plate of food.
Chef Akira Johnston is ready to serve up tasty holiday fare at The Arbors.
Q: What do holiday menus mean to you?

Chef: I think of good comfort food, something that you’re going to eat a plate of and go for a nap. If they aren’t sleepy by the time they leave the dining room, my job is not done.

I think of good comfort food when I think of the holidays because (the Residents) look forward to this; sharing a meal with your family and your loved ones. Some people, they’ll watch what they eat up until the holidays. It’s time for them to splurge in family time and splurge when it comes down to food.

Q: What types of dishes offer that holiday comfort?
Roasted duck breast, sliced and plated with sweet mashed potatoes and broccolini.
One of Chef Akira’s favorite menu items for the holidays is duck.

Chef: Oh my goodness. They, they want stuffing. They want homemade mac and cheese. They want candied yams. But I also have Residents who love other things, like fish. I don’t want them to be excluded from the holiday fun. I am adding a salmon dish on Thanksgiving and short ribs.

[Chef also gets to know the Residents by working on the line, understanding the orders and knowing the frequency of requests.]

Q: How do you decide what is holiday comfort for Thanksgiving vs. Hanukkah and Christmas?

Chef: Thanksgiving is, again, a little bit more traditional.

I feel like these dishes are already decided, but Christmas and Hanukkah gives us a little bit more of a range to be creative.

[The Arbors will host a Holiday Cheers open house each Wednesday afternoon in December and offer unique dinner specials the week leading up to Christmas Day.]

I’m thinking special menu, Christmas. This is a time to bring in all these great, fun ingredients. This is a time to show off what my team can do in the kitchen. For the Christmas week specials, we’ll have specials like filet mignon, jumbo shrimp, bring in saffron.

Lobster tail cooked and glazed with butter
Lobster will be on the Christmas menu at The Arbors.
Q: What are some “luxury” ingredients you like to pull out for special occasions?

Chef: Definitely saffron. I love saffron. I want to bring in scallops, like those big boy scallops, to run as a special. Lobster, filet mignon, prime rib, lamb chops, duck. Mm, I can keep going. Swordfish, halibut, grouper, Chilean sea bass.

Then, we can put all of our effort into executing this flawless, spectacular dish.

Oh. Yeah. We’re about to get real fancy.

Q:  Are there other ways the team makes the holidays special for Residents?

Chef: The thing that stood out to me the most is I was doing a schedule, trying to be fair, making sure we are all able to enjoy some of the holidays with our family, my team doesn’t want to hear any of that. They are willing to surrender to their time, and are like, listen, we’re ready to. So that, for one, meant a lot to me.

We know these Residents. This is a time to make meals feel less transactional and more personable.

And we try to consider their requests. They are ready for this homemade fried chicken. They’re definitely ready for the prime rib. I’ve had a Resident ask me for lamb chops since I was hired (in January). They’re also definitely looking forward to specials like lobster. Nothing says elegance to me than offering some type of lobster option, like thermidor. I want to add just a little razzle dazzle to elevate the dish.

Join us for Holiday Cheer

The Arbors Independent Living community loves to celebrate the holidays with special chef-prepared meals, events and outings. Our gift to you is a great move-in special!

See our community’s decked halls and share a cup of cheer with us! Join us for a tour during our Holiday Cheer events 2 p.m. Wednesdays in December by calling 757-844-6659 or visit to schedule and learn about our move-in offer.


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