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Credit: Cornell Watson
The Way We Eat

What It’s Like Being a Pastry Chef at an Independent Living Facility for Seniors Right Now

updated Dec 4, 2020
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Name: Tie Lewis 
Location: Clayton, NC 
How many people eat in your home: 2 adults, 2 sweet little girls

I first met Tie Lewis in 2010 when we studied Gastronomy at Boston University, and for as long as I’ve known her, she has dreamed in sugar, butter, and flour. And fortunately for her family and friends, she’s one of those people who always remembers their dreams.

Over the course of her career as a pastry chef, sweet dreams and sweeter intentions have fueled her desserts. With lots of empathy and encyclopedic-like knowledge on what flavors play well together, Tie is able to meet any challenge with a creative solution. This approach has taken her from creating towering gluten-free wedding cakes, to founding her dessert company, Buttermilk Boutique, to her current role as Head Pastry Chef for an independent living facility in Raleigh, North Carolina. There, she is responsible for creating two, (sometimes three!) daily desserts that meet the tastes (and nutritional) needs of the residents. All 200 of them!

Back in July, when the idea of a pandemic and a perfectly sunny day seemed like the most incongruous thing on the planet, Tie shared a picture on her Instagram stories of the most recent treat she baked at work: frosted sugar cookies with words piped in tranquil blue frosting. It was her caption, however, that caught my attention. Here’s what she wrote: 

“The suicide rate at independent living facilites is going up. Residents can’t see family members…go to the store..and can only leave their apts sometimes. Most go days without going outside. We can’t hug them, shake their hand, and at times, are advised not to speak with them. It breaks my heart. So sometimes, I send messages in desserts…you know… to let them know I care. They love these message cookies…I love to see them happy.” 

Recently, Tie and I had a chance to catch up to talk about what it’s like to be a pastry chef at an independent living facility for seniors in the middle of a pandemic, how those message cookies came about, and what she’s doing to take care of herself and her family as we enter the holiday season.

Credit: Cornell Watson

What are covid protocols at independent living facilities like right now? What has it been like for you and your team in the kitchen? 
Currently, residents are allowed to have up to two visitors. Everyone is screened at the front door for temperature and symptom checks. There is only one way in and one way out to help keep watch on the foot traffic. No one is allowed in the building without a paper surgical mask, and all employees are required to wear a mask for the duration of their time inside of the building. Along with frequent hand washing, we are required to keep our six feet distance from residents and then from each other. They are allowed in the common spaces (bar, pool room, dining room, living room, etc.) as long as they are following these guidelines. There are several hand sanitizer stations around the building to help encourage keeping hands clean.

As far as the kitchen goes, we have to adhere to the same protocol. Luckily, our workstations are naturally more than six feet apart so that part doesn’t pose any issues. The biggest issue is temperature. The kitchen can get pretty hot, and at times breathing underneath those masks can be quite a task. So, you’ll see a few of us stepping out on the loading dock to take a quick breath. 

Credit: Cornell Watson

How did the message cookies come about?
I was offered the position of pastry chef in March, right at the beginning of the pandemic. At one point, around May, when the facility was pretty much locked down, I walked past a small group of ladies and overheard them talking. One said “I’m so depressed.” Another said “Well, I’m drinking more.” That broke my heart and I thought to myself, I’m here. I have to do something.

Then during one particular stand-up meeting, the director of the facility noted that there was a significant increase in suicide rates for those in assisted living. I wanted to cry. I thought about my grandmother, who I don’t get to see that much because she’s high risk. Yet here I am able to help these people. So I asked myself what I could do? What would I do for my grandmother? I wanted the residents to know to know they were loved, not forgotten or being ignored. So I started writing messages on the cookies. 

Credit: Cornell Watson

What kind of messages did you write?
On the first ones it was things like “you are loved,” “laugh a little,” or just “smile.” It was little stuff I could fit on there but it’s been enough to lift everyone’s spirits in the moment. I try to make them once a month, especially in the months when we don’t do something special like a socially distanced tea party. 

A tea party, complete with actual tea cups, and French macarons! And you even hosted a socially distanced Oktoberfest, right? 
We hosted a socially distanced beer tasting for them. I took three local German-inspired beers and paired them with mini cupcakes. As for those who did not drink, I made sure to have apple cider. That night for dinner, residents were able to choose from a German-inspired menu complete with homemade black forest cake.

Do you like baking for this population over a general population? 
I don’t care who I’m baking for, I’m going to do the best job I can. I keep myself on my toes because I don’t want to get bored and I don’t want the residents to get bored. When I first started I was a little bummed. I thought it was going to be a total shift from the creative environment of restaurants that I’m used to. But everyone is so appreciative, which is a nice change from busting your ass at a restaurant and not feeling appreciated. Here, I get to bring joy to everyone. And it’s nice when they let you know. I love hearing “Hey Tie, that lemon meringue pie was great. I’m going to gain 10 lbs!”

Credit: Cornell Watson

What’s a wild card dessert you’ve made for the residents that they love? 
Individual blackberry pavlovas. They know what meringue is but pavlovas took it to the next level. 

What’s a repeat hit? What’s guaranteed to make everyone happy?
Chocolate chip cookies — the giant ones. 

How giant are we talking here? 
Giant, like, three to four cookies in one. When I first started all the cookies I made were average size, but now everyone demands the giant size. Giant Linzer cookies, giant sugar cookies, giant cream puffs … I only make giant treats now. Think about it: When you were a kid, and you had a choice, you always wanted the giant ice cream cones. 

Credit: Cornell Watson

Your schedule is demanding and you’re a mother of two little girls. How are you taking care of yourself? 
Sundays are my self-care/lazy days. I spend the morning with my girls making chocolate chip pancakes, drinking hot chocolate, and watching Disney movies in our PJs until their dad gets home. He’s off early. Then it’s mommy time — which can involve anything from a foot massager, bubble bath, or a glass of wine. And on those really tough Sundays, a tall Corona.  I’m also working on my chocolate skills, so getting a few hours alone in the kitchen to do so is great therapy. 

I know spending time in the kitchen with your husband and daughters is very important to you. What does that look like right now? 
What’s crazy is we spend more time in the kitchen now, during the pandemic, then we ever have. We are constantly cooking all the things we crave. I use “we” lightly because my husband does most of the cooking. If I see something on Instagram or in a magazine, my hubs recreates it for us. This includes things like an oxtail ravioli (inspired by random Facebook post), Darius Cooks’ Peruvian chicken with green sauce, Philly cheesesteak egg rolls, an Instagram blogger’s shrimp wonton soup, and curry goat with yucca fries — just to name a few things.

The girls love running rampant in the kitchen. You can find cookie cutters in the dryer, fondant in the fridge, and cake pans in their little car. I’ve been baking more at home, which feels great. My family loves cookies. I try to keep a batch of giant chocolate chip cookie dough on hand for my oldest, Sage, and my husband, Glen’s, late-night cravings.  

Credit: Cornell Watson

You all have the best holiday meals! What’s on this year’s menu?
I love when I get this question, because I am proud of the fact that we’ve moved away from the traditional holiday meals. You know — turkey, dressing, sweet potatoes (although sweet potato pies will always be a staple), collard greens, etc. We love them, but they can get a bit mundane. This Christmas we are looking forward to lamb lollipops with chimichurri, roasted root vegetables (carrot, parsnips, rutabaga, purple sweet potatoes), potatoes au gratin, and maybe a few homemade sage brown butter dinner rolls to round out the carb overload. Glen loves tiramisu, so that’ll probably be our dessert of choice. 

Credit: Cornell Watson

What about those regular weeknight meals? Anything you keep in rotation? 
Oh yeah! We lean heavily on Glen’s Jamaican roots. So on any given night you can find jerk chicken, or oxtails, rice and peas, sweet plantains, and cabbage. We keep spicy beef patties and coco bread on deck for those nights where cooking just isn’t in us. Thank God my husband doesn’t mind cooking, because I lean on him to prepare dinner just as heavily as we rely on his Jamaican roots for consistent deliciousness.

Thanks so much, Tie! Follow her on Instagram for all the sweet treats.

The Way We Eat is a series of profiles and conversations with people like you, about how they feed themselves and their families. We’re actively looking for people to feature in this series. You don’t have to be famous or even a good cook! We’re interested in people of all backgrounds and eating habits. If you’d like to share your own story with us, or if you know of someone you think would be great for this series, start here with this form.