A day in the life of... Debbie Dillon
01 September 2016
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Debbie Dillon in action at the inaugural Senior Lifestyle Cuisines Competition where she placed 2nd
New Zealand INsite
INsite. How did you get to be where you are today?
Debbie Dillon: My mum and grandma are phenomenal cooks. Food, family and laughter were the basic ingredients in my upbringing. It is also the same for my children, and just quietly my daughter shares the same affinity with food.
I really shouldn't have been surprised when I fell into food. It was never a decision to become a chef, it just happened organically. A genuine love of food and the opportunity to learn from butchers, bakers, fishmongers and chefs drove my passion. My first job was at a supermarket and the product knowledge and skills I obtained from that experience helped set me up for my future career.
Several years, many kitchens, lots of learning, a qualification and a couple of cool kids later, I'm with Oceania. This was a choice that allowed me to stay with a career that I love but with hours that suit family life. I've worked for Oceania's Atawhai Rest Home for almost three years. I started at Atawhai as kitchen and household manager before becoming executive chef and then area kitchen manager, managing four Oceania sites around Hawke's Bay.
INsite: What does a typical day involve?
Debbie Dillon: As area kitchen manager, I spend a lot of time mentoring. We go over plating and garnishing, planning menus, different ways of preparing the food, processes, budgeting. Our cooks and chefs come from a wide range of backgrounds so we share, expand their knowledge and mine. We should all be continuously learning and willing to think about things differently. This collaboration inspires passion and creatively. Cooking is very creative and even though our chefs follow a national menu, they can put their own spin on it.
We run 'restaurant nights' at our Gracelands and Atawhai rest homes; Duart will be starting soon. These nights give the chefs some freedom to express themselves, and residents and family the ability to share a comfortable and affordable dining experience. We also run theme days, picnics, parties, high teas, barbecues, and tributes to Elvis - it goes on and on. I have an incredibly supportive team and, together with amazing activities staff, healthcare assistants and the clinical team, we make it all happen.
INsite: What do you love about your job?
Debbie Dillon: No day is the same and no day is an easy day. It's so rewarding to be able to make a real difference to someone's life. What our residents eat affects both their physical and mental wellbeing. When the food is tender and easy to eat, it helps them maintain their independence. It can bring back nostalgic memories, it can improve mood and provide a social outlet. If a resident isn't thriving, we get together as a team to work it out because if someone isn't eating well, their quality of life is affected. I also love mentoring staff. I just really like people and being given the opportunity to help them develop.
INsite: What do you find challenging?
Debbie Dillon: Our residents' needs are always changing so you have to be on top of it all the time. If a resident has been ill or starts losing weight, we need to ensure there is extra fortification in their meals. If someone says they don't want what's on offer that day, we'll find something that appeals to them. Food is all about hospitality - they are our customers and we're here to please them.
INsite: Tell us about your recent awards and the impact they've had on your career.
Debbie Dillon: In 2015 I came second at the inaugural Senior Lifestyle Cuisines Competition and Atawhai won the NZACA Excellence in Food Service award.
Those awards really lifted my profile and they are changing people's perceptions of food in aged care. The reality is that our food is excellent and our menus are modern and exciting. I think events and awards like these are wonderful for the whole industry.
It shows that aged care is a viable option for serious chefs - that you can excel and have a really satisfying career in this industry. This year we provided the local winemakers from Church Road their meals over a busy vintage.
They received exactly the same meals as our residents (only about three times bigger) and were really blown away. I do a lot of recruiting and the calibre of people who now want to work for us is amazing.
INsite: What do you want to achieve?
Debbie Dillon: I come up with some unconventional ideas at times but I'm always striving to be better and to create new experiences for our residents. I'm lucky that I work for a progressive company and that my manager lets me run with things.
I've also worked hard to earn the trust of our residents so when I put something new in front of them, they're willing to give it a go. But they're also very honest and if they don't like it, they tell you!
Find out more about Atawhai Rest Home