Harry Parlee: Culinary Therapy

One of the ways Parlee has brought more dignity to dining for ARC residents is by making finger foods for residents who find it difficult to handle forks and spoons.

“Alzheimer’s patients get to the point where they can’t use flatware, because their hands shake,” he explains.

“But they can pick up solid things, so we make finger foods for them. For example, for dessert we make big sheets of cookies, and cut them into cookie sticks. If we have chicken pot pie we can take a little of the filling and wrap it in a pastry, like a pot pie chicken finger.” Parlee also has enhanced the quality of both pureed foods and the experience of eating them.

“We’ve done away with the lazy Susans, the plain scoops of globs of puree,” he says. “Here, we take away the trays; we don’t use bibs, we use scarves. We have music. When we serve honey mustard chicken sandwiches, we do a scoop of pureed chicken, hit it with a little of the veloute sauce, and top it with some honey mustard sauce. We try to bring some dignity to the dining experience.”

Aromatherapy also is an element of Parlee’s program.

“I take a roast in the morning and rub it with garlic and olive oil and fresh basil and thyme,” he explains. “Then I go down to the assisted living area at 2 p.m. and stick the roast in the oven so the residents can smell the roast cooking. Then we carve it in front of them and serve it. We have found that atmosphere and surroundings have a lot to do with residents’ appetites. They eat better when they see that people pay attention to them.”

Parlee notes that ARC residents can be very vocal about the food.“They’re unhappy and frustrated, they need to vent, so we get all sorts of criticism from residents,” he says. “And yet, if you talk to the family members, you learn that they actually go crazy over the food.”

Parlee is a person who tends to immerse himself in whatever he is doing, ever since he started working at the Sonesta Hotel in Hartford, Conn. Although he lacks a culinary degree, Parlee has spent his entire adult like learning and perfecting his skills. “I liked cooking and I found out that I had an aptitude for it,” he recalls. “I talked with some of the chefs I worked with, and they suggested that I come and learn from them. So I spent time with the butcher chef, learning to fabricate meats; I worked with the pastry chef, the sous chef; I learned it all.”

He worked in several hotels, restaurants and country clubs in Connecticut for nearly 20 years, before taking on the role of food and beverage director at The Gables at Farmington, an upscale retirement community in Farmington, Conn. He worked at The Gables from 1998 to 2000, when he became the foodservice director at The Ethel Walker School, an exclusive girl’s boarding school in Simsbury, Conn. He remained there until February 2006, when the job at ARC opened.

“I felt I needed to do something different, and I’ve been able to use my hotel and restaurant background here, as well as everything I did with The Ethel Walker School,” says Parlee. But he didn’t just rely on his past skills. He took the next step by joining the Dietary Managers Association and taking the six-hour test to become a certified dietary manager.

Parlee is sanguine about his job, despite the seemingly depressing nature of his surroundings.

“Basically, when somebody comes here this is their last residence,” he notes. “We lose anywhere from 25 to 30 residents a year. In spite of that, we go about our business every day, which is to put a smile on everyone’s face.”

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