Though the pandemic continues to rage, a few small pockets of normalcy have begun to assert themselves as vaccines finally make their way into the world — and into the arms of frontline workers and the most vulnerable.
As of Feb. 20, the upscale Westminster-Canterbury senior living campus in Virginia Beach is a COVID-free zone: All residents, and all staffers, have received their vaccines. And so even though social distancing is still maintained, says spokeswoman Amy Sheyer, many of the previous restrictions will be relaxed.
But even before this, the campus tried to keep its residents connected to the world even when physical closeness wasn’t possible.
“From what the experts are saying, the next worst thing from the virus itself is isolation and loneliness,” Sheyer said. “There’s a statistic out there, which is that loneliness is like smoking 15 cigarettes a day, physically. We wanted to really make sure our folks kept connected. We made sure that our people knew how to do video — we helped them with video calling and video chatting with their families. We created an in-person way for them to visit with families; we had a big plexiglass wall. And then we created a hugging wall, which was made out of plain old shower curtain. Because people haven’t been able to hug their kids or their grandkids.”
The campus also set up virtual classes, including cooking classes. After all, one of the main ways people stay connected is through food.
For five years, the campus has had a particularly close relationship with Los Angeles celebrity chef Jet Tila, best known most recently as a co-host of Iron Chef America.
Tila, who grew up in his family’s Thai restaurants and markets, has founded restaurants all over the country, works as a food consultant for NBC Universal and DreamWorks, and is a regular on Food Network shows from “Beat Bobby Flay” to “Iron Chef America” to many things Fieri. He also set a world record for the largest-ever fruit salad.
But before the fame, he worked with large food-service companies, where he inaugurated his habit of “moonlighting” by working with senior living communities. And each year, Tila has come to Virginia Beach to cook food and visit with residents on the Westminster-Canterbury campus.
On Feb. 17, that visit had to be virtual — a Zoom-chat teriyaki cooking class that doubled as a celebration, as residents look forward to a return to relative normalcy.
Before the class, we caught up with Tila to ask about shooting TV shows during a pandemic, the relative merits of Bobby Flay and Iron Chef Morimoto, and why he keeps coming back to Virginia Beach.
So you got vaccinated yesterday. First or second shot?
First shot, and that happened because of my connection to senior living communities. Senior living communities across America, they have the first sense of normalcy we won’t get to experience for months. It’s an entire community that’s totally vaxxed. They’re living, dining, playing together. I just visited a community in San Francisco, and to see that normalcy — we’ve really been affected by it.
How has your life changed since the pandemic?
I haven’t dressed up or worn a chef’s coat. Before COVID, my day was getting on planes, and visiting partners and restaurants, and going to TV shoots. So it’s changed quite a bit.
Speaking of TV, you’ve competed against both Iron Chef Morimoto and Bobby Flay. Who’s more intimidating?
They’re both as intimidating in their fields, right? The way to beat Bobby Flay is to pull out something ethnic or global, or something classically French. And then the way to beat Morimoto is to do the opposite.
So who’s more intimidating? You know, Flay is a lot more intimidating, to be honest with you. Morimoto is business when he’s cooking, but he’s like me: He’s always got a smile on his face. But Bobby is intense, in the best way; I aspire to be as competitive as he is. We’ve got a new show (on Food Network), the second season of “Tournament of Champions” coming up in March. I think it’s the most-viewed competition show in the decade on the network: 16 of the best Food Network chefs.
I think I finally found my killer instinct, after years of battling and being around Bobby and all these other great chefs. You’ll see some new fire come out.
Was shooting that show strange during the pandemic?
I’ve experienced the pandemic in terms of cooking for production, and being in the production. So I’ve been on both sides of it. Yeah, man: It’s big bubbles of like 100 people, and a lot of testing, and a lot of quarantine.
I will say, in all those productions that I’ve done with Food Network, the TV shows that I’ve shot during the pandemic, we have not had one case. I’ve heard of TV shows that have had issues, but not one I’ve been connected to. It’s pretty amazing: There’s no room for error.
You’ve also had to design your own pandemic precautions, as a food-services consultant to NBC Universal and Dreamworks. What’s that involve?
Basically they used to be big catering trucks and self-serve lines. We’ve had to turn everything into kind of white glove, pre-packaged meals that still feel exciting and give variety. It’s been a monumental task. But you know, every studio has figured it out, including ours.
Really it’s just about giving people a sense of variety and fun. Food is that ‘relax, aha, break’ part of the day. And COVID has taken a lot of the fun out of food service across the board. The other thing is these experiences like Westminster-Canterbury that bring it all back.
So what kind of program are you putting on for the people in Virginia Beach?
I’ve worked out a teriyaki chicken kit, and everyone participating has one of those, and they’ll basically either cook along, or I’m basically giving them a Food Network kind of show, with a Q&A at the end. We’re leaving the Zoom chat open — it’s not a seminar, so anyone can jump in. So imagine a Food Network show with the opportunity to actually talk to your host.
You’re more known for Thai food than for teriyaki. Has it been interesting to see the profile of Thai food increase nationwide?
I have seen more regional — what people would call “authentic (Thai) food” — proliferate. But I also find that there’s a little snobbery attached to that, right? It’s kind of like, “I’m in this club that you’re not in.” And I don’t think that it’s the best way to look at food. You know, it shouldn’t be precious.
So I’m doing teriyaki at Westminster. And I’m proud of that, because if someone is happy and wants to eat that, I can take him deeper into the subtleties of soy sauces, and the history of what teriyaki means. And I can apply that across different types of Japanese and Korean food. I am an inclusive food person, a food educator.
You keep coming back to Westminster: How did you get so connected with a senior living spot in Virginia Beach?
How do I put this? If it was a little closer, I’d want my mom there one day. The community itself values their residents. I think most people have this negative association with senior living communities — it’s kind of like where you store somebody — but they really emphasize quality of life. They invest their time, and that’s why I’ve been there. So well, you know: Hopefully one day my mom wants to go there. (He laughs.)
It’s the only one I’ve been to five years in a row. I do get requests to come to senior living communities, but this is the only one I’ve ever been to this frequently. I also have a bunch of Virginia Beach buddies who are military, who are ex-military — so I have a little kinship to that area.
What else have you got planned for the future?
I’ve got some other shows down the pipe, we’re filming pilots. So you know, I’ve paid my dues, and the Food Network’s been really good to me. So maybe in 2022, we’ll see: Hopefully there will be a Jet Tila show.
Matthew Korfhage, 757-446-2318, email@example.com