Terence Austin's poached fish on roast vege base with cream sauce and a garnish of plum sauce.

Q&A: Terence Austin, chef with a mission

Chef Terence Austin.

A visit to his grandfather in a rest home prompted chef Terence Austin to leave the hospitality industry and turn his skills to ensuring older people get great food and the variety they deserve. He tells Eldernet that the joy he sees on a village resident’s face at meal time is his real reward.

Ensuring everyone gets to eat food that is appealing, appetising and nutritious is an obvious passion of yours – where do you think that springs from?

From a childhood being raised on a farm. Not only working on the farm in Taumarunui but also helping to cook for the shearing gangs.

What you do to present pureed food is almost art – how did you get started on that?

Grilled sausage with marquis potato, minted peas and ginger carrots.

I saw this was lacking in the retirement sector, with most food being incorrectly pureed and a lack of professionalism. Food was presented either scooped or looking more like soup with no flavour. Most facilities I saw were using leftover food rather than freshly prepared and it came across to me that the residents were treated more as an inconvenience rather than receiving the respect they deserve.

What other specialist food do you do?

Any style of food including Asian and fusion. There are a number of increased alternative meals that need to be provided as we now recognise that a number of the elderly have either an intolerance or an allergy to certain foods. The idea of making myself familiar with meals including gluten-free and vegan was important as it gave me the ability to provide safe food in a safe environment.

We’ve come a long way – should we expect all chefs and restaurants to be able to cater for the range of dietary requirements and conditions?

This is a must. Of course you now have restaurants that specialise in vegan-style meals. In the case of the retirement sector, you have a captive clientele and it is important to work with language therapists, the registered nurse and the doctor to ensure the correct food is provided. To me, what helps is that a menu specific to the needs of the resident is provided. This ensures they have a choice on a menu. Also important is that the person serving the meal is aware of any allergies and the correct meal is provided.

You’re London and City Guilds-trained – how did that come about?

Back in the 1980s, my training for London City and Guilds was provided in New Zealand, through the Hamilton Polytechnic. It was through the Department of Maori Affairs’ Tu Tangata scheme, which involved taking boys and girls from around New Zealand who showed a passion for a craft that could be developed into a career. In my case it was catering. My onsite training was through what was then THC Wairakei in Taupo. This was working with German and French chefs. Old school system and classically trained. The values impressed on me back then I carry with me even today.

You had 30 years in hospitality before moving into the aged care industry – what prompted that?

I have previously owned a catering company, various restaurants and function centres. In 2006 I went to visit my grandfather in a rest home. The only thing he looked forward to was a bottle of beer. The standard food was poor quality and served either cold or tasteless. When he was moved to a puree diet, it was really bad. I made him a promise that I would get involved in this industry and show how it is possible to serve restaurant-style food in a retirement setting.

And after 10 years you are still in aged care – what do you find most rewarding?

I have been bitten by a bug and love working with the elderly. It is the fact that residents in their golden years can have great food and the variety they deserve. Yes you have a budget, but you can still provide great food with choices. It is quite true what is said, that you are giving a piece of yourself when you are providing the meal, and the joy on a resident’s face means so much more that recognition.

What’s your go-to dish when you are cooking at home?

Mostly stir-fried quick meals, with of course a nice Sunday roast. Sometimes I’ll try a dish at home and, judging from the family response, may include it in future meals at the facility.

Finally, name a book or author that has inspired you in your life or career?

None really as I have taken inspiration from the chefs I have worked with rather than looking in books. To the stage that the next progression was to start my own businesses. The main idea is to find a point of difference.

Never be settled in the thought that you know as much as you need to in any career. That is setting a limit on yourself. To be successful and at the same time enjoy what you are doing, keep striving for improvement with the knowledge that what you are doing benefits others.

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