The Ultimate Foodie

Aug 25, 2021

For the past five years, Director of Food Services Zwardie “Z” Nelson of Culinary Services Group has been the master chef behind the delicious meals and festive celebrations that make Broadway House feel more like home.

Please tell us about yourself.

I’ve been cooking basically my whole life, starting at the age of 10. My grandmother owned a restaurant many years ago in Jamaica, so that probably influenced me. But a mistake really led me into this career. While attending Delaware State University, I misread the hospitality and tourism major: I thought it said hospital and tourism. That sounded interesting, so I signed up. In reality, the hospitality and tourism program provided much more training than just culinary arts. I learned about every aspect of the hospitality and tourism industry. I also earned a secondary degree in general management and a minor in marketing.

You’ve had an interesting career.

My experience has run the gamut, from high end food service at Neiman Marcus to institutional food service for homeless shelters, to everything in between. I was responsible for opening the food concessions at Kalahari Hotel in Pennsylvania; during the first month of operation, the hotel grossed $350,000 in revenue. I also took a brief break from the food service industry to work in logistics and production at the pharmaceutical firm, Sanofi.

Before Broadway House, the job that really resonated with me was serving as the Food Service Director for the North Jersey Friendship House, an organization in Hackensack that builds skills of individuals with varying abilities and developmental needs. I was proud to train 50 student workers and 10 staff members to provide 3,000 meals a day that were dispersed to schools, homeless shelters, and other facilities. In addition, I secured $450,000 in grants to develop the Icon Program—a 16-week culinary arts program—for higher functioning residents.

What brought you to Broadway House?

I came to Broadway House five years ago because I wanted to return to working with food. But more importantly, I wanted to serve the community. When I first arrived, the first priority was to improve the kitchen and resident dining. Culinary Services Group invested the funding to upgrade the kitchen layout and supply new equipment. Since then, there have been a lot of changes for the better.

While the facilities are nice, it’s the residents who keep me here. It feels good at the end of the day to know I have helped them. I know every resident by name. Broadway House is a great place to work and there are really good people here. We care about our residents, I think sometimes more than they care about themselves.

What job challenges do you face?

At a long-term care facility, there are varied dietary needs and restrictions based on each resident. You need to adjust how you cook for the diabetic vs. the person who cannot have salt vs. the person who needs their food liquified. Another challenge is that while they’re here, some residents trade one abusive beha­vior—like substance abuse—for another, such as food. So, you really need to connect with each resident to know and monitor their behavior.

Nutritious food is an important part of the healing process. So over the years, I’ve made a lot of changes to the menu to mix in more healthy meals. To make things more fun, I also implemented an “Always Available Menu” with staples like chicken pot pie, baked chicken, hamburgers, and grilled cheese. Sometimes, I’ll also serve authentic ethnic meals, such as Spanish or Caribbean dishes.

Has the pandemic affected food service?

COVID-19 has affected all aspects of care, including food service. There have been some supply chain disruptions that have caused us to rewrite menus more frequently, based on the availability of ingredients. Before the pandemic, there were also more opportunities to provide fun events like a Breakfast Bagel Bar or Seafood Festival. I try to have the residents enjoy food experiences comparable to those outside the facility, such as National Cheesecake Day and Donut Day. Our team also provides a huge feast for Thanksgiving. Now these events, like the recent summer luau, have to be planned around proper social distancing protocols.

Can you share a favorite recipe with us?

Sure. Here’s the recipe for Jerk Chicken: