Inside Athena: Worcester Dir. of Dining Teaches the Ins and Outs of Cooking
WORCESTER, M.A. — Mark Walton has a love for being in the kitchen and an even bigger love for teaching what he knows in the kitchen.
He’s been the Director of Dining Services at Worcester Rehabilitation & Health Care Center for 17 years. In his role, he oversees ordering products, 16 employees, meal planning, and much more. He also serves in a regional role, overseeing the dining services departments at five other Athena-managed centers in Massachusetts, including Berkshire Rehabilitation & Skilled Care Center, Lanessa Extended Care, Highview of Northampton, Southbridge Rehabilitation & Health Care Center, and Webster Manor Rehabilitation & Health Care Center.
When a new resident moves into the center, Walton likes to meet with them to discuss their diets, preferences, and any restrictions they may have. Each resident has different likes and dislikes, Walton said it’s important to understand what dining services can do to make their stay as comfortable as possible.
“It is hard sometimes because some of them are on restricted diets and they don’t know sometimes what to eat, what not to eat, how to follow it, so education is involved in that too. You have to educate them on what their diet is, what they can have, what they can’t. It’s a healthcare facility so they’re here to get better so you want to be a part of that,” Walton said.
The residents get meal plans in a four-week cycle so they can pick which they would prefer ahead of time. That helps the kitchen staff understand how to best prepare meals for 140 residents. But just because there’s a 140 mouths to feed, doesn’t mean the food can’t be unique and delicious.
“It’s definitely that one-on-one attention you have to give them. You can’t just treat them as a blank slate across-the-board. Everybody has their own likes and dislikes,” he said. “You can add stuff to the food. You can make it taste good. Create things.”
While there are recipes for the teams, Walton said each cook puts their own little spin on things based on the population they serve. The Worcester team incorporates Spanish-inspired cuisine into their menu to serve their large Spanish-speaking population.
They also take the feedback of residents into the kitchen. If residents have meal suggestions, the dining team will try and make change happen. Walton said if he wasn’t doing what he’s doing now, he would be teaching others about cooking.
“I love to teach. I love to train. I enjoy my regional role, I get to go to other buildings and work with other directors and show them things I know,” he said.
With his background in hotels and restaurants, he aims to serve residents three meals a day that would be found in those settings.
Walton would get more inspiration to switch industries the more he visited his grandmother who lived in a nursing home. Working in restaurants and hotels, he said there was no connection with the people he served. Now, he can get feedback and learn about the people eating his meals each and every day. He had worked for another nursing home company before joining Athena and has stuck around for almost two decades because he’s invested in Worcester. He calls it his “second home.”
Years ago, the center had a contract with a nearby hospital for food service, which ended when Walton joined the team. With a new kitchen at his helm, he was ready to serve dishes to the residents. He proudly said he still works with many of the same people as he did when he joined years ago.
He has two bachelor’s degrees from Newbury College in culinary arts and food service management, respectively.