Cooking up a creation

Published 10:02 am Friday, October 19, 2012

Deni Garcia poses for a photo at Thorne Crest Retirement Community recently. Garcia makes fantastic creations in the kitchen, and residents love her work. -- Brandi Hagen/Albert Lea Tribune

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The residents at Thorne Crest Retirement Community know when Emmons resident Deni Garcia’s in the kitchen; they can always tell when she created the appetizer or dessert of the day just by looking at what sort of creation she’s dreamed up for them. When they walk into the brightly-lit, Victorian-esque dining area and look at the delicious meals and treats on shining white tableware, the Thorne Crest residents know they’re in for a spectacle whenever Garcia’s around.

One of Deni Garcia’s creation is this shortcake dessert.

“I like to make them happy,” Garcia said. “If I didn’t come here and make something homemade, who’ll make it?”

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Though she says she’s “not a very institutional kind of person,” Garcia is practically a Thorne Crest institution. For 32 years, she’s transformed food into art for senior citizens. Her creations are many, her work well-known. She can transfer the simplest sandwich into a delectable treat, and she takes great pride in pleasing her judges.

“They know when I’m cooking too,” Garcia said with a laugh. “The aides always tell me, the gals in the kitchen always tell me, ‘Oh Deni’s not here today,’ and that’s what they said, or ‘Oh, Deni’s here.”

Since she can remember, Garcia has felt at home in the kitchen. She was the cook for a family with five children growing up, so she’s known her way around food for some time.

Brandi Hagen/ Albert Lea Tribune

She first started working at Thorne Crest when she was 22, but she didn’t take such pride in creating appealing dishes at first. It wasn’t until the company paid for several training sessions that she came into her own.

“I kind of grew into it,” she said.

That’s not all she grows. Many of her dishes involve fresh ingredients from her garden, whether it’s herbs and spices or a few vegetables here and there. Much of the food she cooks is on a schedule — the community has a four-week rotation menu — but she gets to be creative when it comes to coffee snacks or activity snacks.

“I get to make what I want to make,” she said. “I like that.”

Yet Garcia has plenty of fan favorites that are always in demand, and she’s happy to make what the residents want. Treats like cucumber and shrimp sandwiches on rye bread always go fast.

“They’re cute!” Garcia said. “Those are my favorite.”

Brandi Hagen/ Albert Lea Tribune

Deviled eggs, tortilla roll-ups and various salads always are popular as well. But nothing beats the feeling Garcia gets when she cooks for special occasions. Whether it’s a holiday or a celebration, Garcia will make loads of food, especially prepared with a little extra touch for appeal, for the gathering. After all, it’s one of the rare times she can get out of the kitchen and meet with the residents she loves to serve.

“They’re like family,” she said. “They’re fun to talk to. They have lots of wisdom.”