(Dubois, WY) – Sheryl Isaly’s retirement as dietary manager for Warm Valley Lodge in Dubois was not quite a celebration–and nothing at all like leaving an ordinary restaurant job.
Her “customers” at the assisted living facility weren’t just passing strangers who might leave a review later on TripAdvisor. They were friends who would stop by the kitchen window to say they loved the scones. Or they would give feedback when she walked into the dining room after serving to chat.
Over time, she has come to know the residents as much more than a set of culinary preferences and dietary needs. And she has grieved the loss of those who are gone.
“It’s been a very enriching experience,” Sheryl said. She does look forward to spending more time with her husband, spending winters in a different climate, and buying a camper. “But it’s difficult to leave.”
After working in restaurants when she was 20, Sheryl’s work experience ranged from managing a fitness center to herding goats. Still, she loved to cook and entertain. As she watched Warm Valley Lodge under construction almost a decade ago, she waited eagerly for a certain job ad to appear. Then was Sheryl who hefted the pots to set up the kitchen, and who made the meals for the first five residents in 2013.
The work is more gratifying than a restaurant job, she said, because for people living at the Lodge, meals are one of the highlights of their days. “It’s their home, and you want the meals to be home-cooked. It was very rewarding to cook a nutritious, attractive meal that they looked forward to.”
That said, it is a challenge to accommodate the requirements and preferences of each resident (although a custom menu service analyzes the menus to track nutrients). “You end up making two or three versions of the same meal, but that’s fine,” she said. Unlike a restaurant, she added, “it wasn’t the same thing every day.”
Knowing her “customers” personally led to an unusual level of commitment during the pandemic, because it has been crucial to keep residents at high risk completely safe from COVID. While helping to maintain a perfect record of zero COVID cases among residents, she often worked long hours and gave up time off because of staff shortages.
Over those years, Sheryl has witnessed a steady influx of newcomers from all over the country. The result has been a transformation in the community at the Lodge, she said.
“People relate to each other more now, because they all have different stories. They find each other more interesting. I see more conversing and gathering going on.”
Stepping in to replace Sheryl in the kitchen, long-time professional chef Allen Sphatt brings a new level of expertise to the position. Previously he managed the commissary for the Fine Dining Restaurant Group, which provides the meals to 7 restaurants in Jackson, including Bin 22 and The Kitchen. He worked as sous chef at Snow King and executive chef at the Granary, and owned two other restaurants in Jackson.
After moving to Dubois 4 years ago, the new job allows him to avoid a long daily commute.
Residents rave about the cuisine, but Sheryl sees another advantage in Allen’s arrival: A great opportunity for the assistant cook yet to be hired. For someone interested in professional cooking, Sheryl said, learning from Allen Sphatt will be a great experience.
“Home cooking is so different from professional cooking,” she explained. “Anyone could walk away from there and know how to safely run a restaurant kitchen.”
h/t Lois Wingerson for sharing the above info