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New chef brings pizzazz to Tigard Senior Center

Theresa Thornton is pleasing the palates of those who eat in house or receive their meals through Meals-on-Wheels
by: Jonathan House, MULTI-FACETED JOB — Loaves & Fishes kitchen coordinator Theresa Thornton not only cooks the meals at the Tigard Senior Center, but she also manages the volunteers who help out each day.

TIGARD - The best new 'restaurant' in town may be the dining room at the Tigard Senior Center.

Loaves and Fishes hired Theresa Thornton as the new cook last fall, and staff and seniors have been singing her praises ever since.

'I want to be creative,' Thornton said. 'I want to have fun with food. If I make a mistake, oh well. It's a privilege to be here to feed these folks and have a meal with them. I learn from them - I ask them for recipes. People have already started bringing me recipes.'

Thornton is thrilled that Loaves and Fishes has hired another dietitian because that makes her job easier.

'I can write my recipes up and send them in to be approved,' she said. 'They provide some of the food, but I also do my own shopping. I have a budget to spend on meat, vegetables and other ingredients.

'I am a really good food shopper. I like to go around to the different places. I've got it down pretty well and know who has the best of each kind of food.'

Right now, Loaves and Fishes provides the food about four days a week, while Thornton prepares her own food once during the five days, but she has been known to cook her own meals two or even three days in a week.

'Loaves and Fishes provides a menu for every day, and I look at it and how I can make it better,' she said. 'I love making food for people and nourishing them. I go shopping every day, before or after work. I'm very particular.'

So far, Thornton said that she has received very favorable comments from the seniors at lunch.

'I go around to all the tables and ask how the meal was,' she said. 'I try to talk to everyone and make them feel welcome - it's part of my job.'

Thornton, 49, actually didn't get interested in cooking until her late 30s. 'I worked for a friend who had a restaurant and developed a love of food,' she said. 'I made desserts and breads - all from scratch.'

Over the years, 'I've been privileged to work with wonderful executive chefs,' Thornton said. 'I worked for a catering company. I just build on things, going from one to the next.'

She previously worked in a big institutional setting 'but everything was measured and calculated,' Thornton said. 'There was no opportunity for creativity.'

She was looking for a new job when Loaves and Fishes hired her and assigned her to be the kitchen coordinator at the Tigard Senior Center.

'I'm a sous chef,' Thornton explained. 'I manage the kitchen and am in charge of scheduling people and ordering the food.

'We're not supposed to use salt here, so I get around it be using herbs and spices. I have a strong catering background. It's almost easier to cook for a big group.'

At the Senior Center, Thornton usually supervises three or four volunteers in the kitchen to put out 150 meals each day.

She arrives around 7 a.m. and starts getting everything washed and ready.

The first deadline of the day is to have the food ready for the Meals-on-Wheels drivers, who pick up the meals around 10:45 a.m.

Although Thornton is turning out popular meals right now, her job is only going to get easier, thanks to planned improvements to the senior center.

'It's going to be wonderful,' Thornton said.

The city is planning to remodel the kitchen with all new appliances, and Tigard is hoping to get $307,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding, according to Lorene Mills, the city's risk manager.

The CDBG policy board has recommended that Tigard receive the funds to the Washington County Board of Commissioners, who are scheduled to vote on the issue in early April.

'The senior center was originally built in 1980 with block grant funds, and the kitchen has not been updated since,' Mills said. 'We desperately need new appliances and electrical work done.'

Other scheduled improvements include an expanded lobby, refurbished restrooms, the addition of large meeting rooms both upstairs and downstairs, and seismic upgrades. The city also has included funds for senior center renovations in its current fiscal year budget.

'As the baby boomers age, we will see more use of the senior center,' Mills said. 'It looks like we will only get enough funding to do the upstairs this year, but we were encouraged to come back next year to seek block grant funding for the downstairs.'

The Tigard Garden Club also has plans for its own improvements for the senior center.

Each year, the club plants a patriotic tree for Arbor Day, but this year the group will plant an herb garden outside the senior center so Thornton will be able to use fresh herbs in her cooking like she does at home.

The project, which includes removing waist-high weeds and adding good topsoil, is expected to start in early April.