As director of culinary and innovation at TRIO Community Meals, Mario Reyes oversees menu development for 100 central kitchens that deliver over 300,000 meals a day across the country.
The meals feed seniors and others struggling with food security in congregate centers where these diners gather daily to eat and socialize. Some also go to the housebound through programs like Meals on Wheels.
“I have to create consistent, high-quality and nutritious meals that work throughout the country, some of which can be adapted to regional and ethnic tastes,” Reyes says. “I also need to keep labor and food costs stable.”
Toward that end, Reyes developed two new shelf-stable sauce bases—brown and poultry—that can be tweaked to offer a wide variety of flavor profiles. “In Texas, the kitchen can add ancho and lime to make a Southwest sauce, and in California, the addition of garlic, ginger and teriyaki turns it into an Asian sauce,” he says.
The bases come in paste form so they’re close to the high-end demi-glace products used by fine-dining chefs. “I stayed away from dry powders, which are prevalent for this type of product, because they become too lumpy when water is added,” says Reyes. “The pastes are easy to execute and result in a smoother sauce.”
Plus, the sauces are thickened with brown rice flour, so they’re gluten-free and low in sodium—the latter being a requirement for many seniors.
Reyes worked with a supplier to develop the prototypes and scale up the product. Then TRIO dietitians made sure the sauces met nutrition guidelines, while Reyes made sure they fit budget guidelines. “Another advantage of the product is that it’s one price for the whole country,” he says. “Making the sauces from scratch would vary in price from one region to another.”
Although the sauce bases were ready to go right before COVID hit, they finally rolled out to about two-thirds of the country in May 2022 and will be national by March of this year. TRIO Community Meals is managed by Elior North America, and the sauces will eventually go into residential senior communities operated by Elior.
In the meantime, Reyes created many recipes to demonstrate the flexibility and versatility of the products to his team of chefs in the central kitchens. One of his favorites is a Korean barbecue sauce that goes especially well with pork and vegetables. Other variations include a Romesco sauce, puttanesca for pasta and a Hawaiian tropical glaze.
Reyes was also busy during the pandemic hosting monthly virtual cooking classes for seniors. “These started pre-pandemic, when I did them live at the congregate centers through Elior's BeWell program, distributing recipe cards so participants could re-create healthy meals at home,” he says.
When the classes turned virtual, they became so popular that some of the nonprofit agencies TRIO partners with turned them into fundraisers. The general public paid a fee to join, and some of the demos included a sommelier.
Now, Reyes is back to live demos, with a recent one in San Diego attracting 80 seniors. “I did barbecue-themed recipes and a tasting, giving each participant a little gift of a spatula,” he says. “I love rewarding at-risk seniors who are food insecure and helping them stay well-fed and healthy.”