Last week for Mardi Gras, the East Hampton Town Senior Citizens Center was decked out for the occasion, with masks adorning each table and purple, green, and gold streamers hung from the ceiling. There were beads for all, and the kitchen staff had prepared the traditional king cake, a cinnamon roll with multicolored icing that is a New Orleans specialty.
“Seniors, they have dessert first,” joked Dee Hallock, an assistant chef, who has worked at the center for a year and a half. It took Ms. Hallock and Debra Kulp, who has been at the center for five years, six hours to make the cake. “We were thrilled with ourselves,” Ms. Hallock said. “It came out very good.”
Visitors to the Springs-Fireplace Road center can enjoy a hearty lunch prepared by a dedicated kitchen staff each weekday for a suggested contribution of $2.50.
Although there are strict nutritional and dietary guidelines, “We like to do extra stuff that they enjoy. It makes us happy,” said Ms. Kulp.
The program, which serves about 65 town residents age 60 or older each day, stays afloat with funding from the town, Suffolk County, and federal grants. Food donations from the community also help.
Overseen by Michelle Posillico, supervisor of the town’s nutritional program, and Tom Lightcap, the chef, the kitchen staff churns out healthy meals that keep their customers coming back for more.
But people get more than just a hot meal at the center. “For some, we’re the only people they see during the day,” Ms. Posillico said. And for some, Mr. Lightcap added, it may be the only nutritional meal of the day. “We try to make it as close to a home-cooked meal as we can,” he said. They enjoy the camaraderie of a shared meal and may stay all day to play bingo or bridge, or join in a yoga or meditation session. An adult day care group for senior citizens with special needs joins in for lunch, and partakes in music, arts, and crafts, as well.
Nutritional and dietary guidelines are mandated by Suffolk County. These include preparing special meals for diabetics, no salt, and strict portion control — three ounces of meat, four ounces of starch, and up to four ounces of vegetables. So the pulling off the Mardi Gras meal was no small feat.
The kitchen staff had to request special permission to change the meal of the day to jambalaya. “We made real sweet potatoes today,” said Ms. Hallock. Mr. Lightcap explained that the menu called for canned goods, but they wanted to roast potatoes and use fresh apples instead.
“It’s different than a restaurant; it’s a different type of challenge,” he said. The chef for the past nine months, he comes from a restaurant background, working most recently at Town Line BBQ and Rowdy Hall.
Ms. Posillico plans the menu, and then sends it to the county for approval and to ensure that dietary requirements are met. If someone does not like what’s for lunch, he or she can choose an alternative meal from the freezer.
Under Ms. Posillico’s management, the staff has not only developed a good rapport with the senior citizens, but also with each other. “It’s more like being at home than being at work as far as relationships go,” Mr. Lightcap said.
“If something’s wrong, we talk,” said Paulina Bahmondes, a food service worker at the center for 15 years.
“If one of us is off for the day, one of us steps in to do what needs to get done,” said Ms. Hallock. “The chef does dishes.”
Their hard work, Ms. Kulp said, is motivated by the people they’re cooking for.
“They’re fun and wild seniors,” said Ms. Hallock. “I’d want to come if I was a senior. It’s a rare wonder.”