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Chef’s recipe for caring evident at Plainfield facility

Chef Mary Altiery food service director Lakewood Nursing RehabilitatiCenter Plainfield prepares julienne salad.  |  Denise M. Baran-Unland~For Sun-Times

Chef Mary Altiery, food service director at Lakewood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Plainfield, prepares a julienne salad. | Denise M. Baran-Unland~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: July 12, 2013 6:23AM

Years ago, Debbie DeBold, a resident at Lakewood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Plainfield, worked at the former Altiery’s 265 in Joliet, where she cleaned lettuce and learned that customers actually ate frog legs.

Mary Altiery, the restaurant’s chef and Lakewood’s newest food service director — who’s cooked for Lou Rawls, Kris Kristofferson and Billy Swan — is rapidly dispelling the “it’s only nursing home food” myth with her chef-created meals.

“The food is 90 percent better now,” DeBold said.

Although meeting the individual dietary needs of 128 residents ages 55 to 100-plus — whether they are living at Lakewood for therapy or long-term care — is part of her job, Altiery thinks food should satisfy the entire person.

“We want them to have a good dining experience instead of just grabbing their food and going back to their rooms,” Altiery said. “When you give them nice meals, they can focus on other things, such as engaging in conversation with other residents.”

Altiery uses a four-week cycle for meal planning, keeping in mind that the Joliet area is a “meat and potato” place, where people prefer familiar home-style meals over anything in a wrap.

She focuses on seasonal fruits and vegetables, substitutes fresh herbs for salt and whips up sugar-free hot chocolate for diabetics. Altiery can adjust any recipe to accommodate allergies, specific nutritional needs and even a few whims.

“We try to cater to their needs,” Altiery said. “If someone doesn’t feel well and wants a bowl of oatmeal, I’ll stop what I’m doing and make it. If someone doesn’t like what’s on the menu and just wants scrambled eggs or grilled cheese, we’ll make it.”

If a resident follows a fairly normal diet but must eliminate items such as potatoes and tomatoes because of dialysis, that resident may still eat pepper steak, minus the tomatoes. People requiring pureed food lose only a meal’s particular texture.

“The taste and the palatability are still there,” she said.

Diabetics limiting carbohydrates may indulge in Altiery’s sugar-free desserts. Even comfort foods, such as bagels and cream cheese, are not denied diabetics if they truly want them.

“They just can’t go back for a bowl of cereal and a piece of toast, too,” Altiery said. “Moderation is key.”

Good presentation of good food is paramount for enticing capricious appetites. Residents won’t eat unappealing food, no matter how good it is for them.

Donna Evjen, 68, a dialysis patient, was seriously ill when she came to Lakewood and it took weeks before she felt better.

“Diet was so important,” Evjen said. “The food here is excellent. It’s just like home-cooked meals.”

Altiery’s late parents, John and Sue Gramera, owned a catering business, so the young Altiery helped by preparing gelatin dishes and salads. At events, she served pop and coffee and cleared tables.

“My mom and dad always said, ‘Never serve anything that you wouldn’t eat yourself,’ ” Altiery said.

In high school, Altiery broke from the culinary arts to work at a roller skating rink and the former Iverson’s Florist in Joliet. In 1978, after high school graduation, Altiery took culinary arts classes at Joliet Junior College and worked as garde manager at Altiery’s 265, where she met her husband, the late Jim Altiery.

In 1981, Altiery’s title became “chef” and she worked at Altiery’s 265 until the restaurant closed in 1989. For nearly 10 years, Altiery oversaw the fish fries at Knights of Columbus Joliet Council No. 382. She also has cooked for other area service clubs and Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen.

At Lakewood, Altiery said she cooks for the residents as if they were her parents. She’s even recognized some familiar faces: former business associates and customers who fondly remember such items as the restaurant’s signature bloody Marys.

“Except now,” Altiery said, “I serve them virgin Marys.”

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