One recent Friday evening, the residents of Winnwood Retirement Community were having a special wine and cheese night. The evening was made complete with a karaoke machine and a gaggle of residents singing along from their seats to Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline and even KISS. Yes, even the elderly like to sing “Beth” from time to time.
As a gentleman started in on his rendition of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” one lady took another by the arm and lead her to the wine and cheese spread. In the middle of the long table was a large bouquet, but not one of flowers.
“You have to see what the chef did today!” the first said to the other, as they marveled over the bouquet of flowers, made out of a variety of fruits and vegetables by the community’s chef.
“What are these made of?” the other asked, in wonder, as her friend pointed out the tiger lilies made of carrots, the flowers made of shaved rutabagas, the bells of Ireland made of jalapenos, the carved melons and watermelons and the many flowers made of bell peppers, radishes and purple onions.
But that beautiful spread was not out of the ordinary for Winnwood Executive Chef Kevin Finnegan to make, nor for the residents to ooh and aah over on a daily basis. Finnegan’s kitchen is often filled with meals of the day being plated and center spreads being carved.
“The saying that you eat with your eyes is true,” Finnegan said one morning in June, as he twisted and pinned rutabaga shavings into blooming flowers. “You can’t bring back a flavor, but you can a picture, and that’s why making your food and your spreads pretty is so important. And the residents, they just go nuts over this stuff. Some of them say they come to the events just to see what I created, so it makes me happy.”
Finnegan, who has been in the culinary business for 35 years, said he began carving fruits and vegetables when he was a kid in Rhode Island. After watching other chefs in the area carve foods into floral creations, he told himself that he could do that, too, and he did.
Finnegan said the larger spreads – such as the one he did for the community’s luau, featuring sea horses, palm trees and nearly everything tropical you could dream of – take several hours to create. But the smaller pieces, such as the watermelons carved into roses and worked into a cake, which he does for each resident’s 90th , 95th , and 100th birthdays, take less than an hour. Some of the other creations, such as carving a tomato into a beautiful rose, can be done in just a matter of minutes.
“I always have the time to prepare these displays because I surround myself with a fantastic culinary team here at Winnwood,” Finnegan said. “I have the luxury of great talent all around me, freeing me up to design and carve. Without the great skills of my team, much of this would be impossible.”
Finnegan said he has yet to find a fruit or vegetable that he couldn’t carve into something creative. The only real trouble he has, at this point, is coming up with new ideas.
Oh, and keeping the residents from actually eating the creations.
“I’ve seen some people pick off the wings and heads of my apple swans, or cut into a melon, you name it,” he said, with a laugh. “But when I see their faces light up and hear their ooh’s and aah’s over what I made, that makes it all worth it.”