Associate Spotlight: Rocking The Kitchen
Mike Rock’s first memory is standing in his great-grandmother’s garden in Philadelphia where she grew an expansive basil plant up the back-alley fence. He was only about 3-years-old at the time, but Mike still remembers her picking a bunch and letting him smell it, as he stared at the towering skyscrapers of the city.
To this day, the aroma of fresh basil brings him back to that moment.
A drive-thru feast
Fresh basil was abundant at the Italian-themed feast Mike organized at the start of spring to honor the social workers who serve our local elder community. Honorees and their families lined up for a drive-thru meet & greet at the assisted living community Village at Buckland Court, taking home four meals and a bottle of wine.
Meanwhile, residents celebrated the reopening of the dining hall with the same feast choices, and of course, wine for those who wanted it.
Food-based celebrations, holidays, and events are some of Mike’s favorite parts of his job as director of dining at Buckland Court. Stepping out of the usual daily process to put together something creative and special for the people he’s there to serve is something he enjoys immensely.
Becoming Chef Mike
After Mike finished kindergarten, he moved with his parents to a new house and started first grade in a new school. Before long he fell behind in reading, as none of the typical See Spot Run-type of books could hold his interest.
But his grandfather, a skilled Italian cook in south Philadelphia, visited his grandson frequently. At one point, he took Mike to the library’s cooking section, picked out a cookbook, and together they read it cover to cover, making every dish they could.
After that, his reading improved to the point that he not only caught up with his classmates but moved ahead to the next grade. That’s when Mike knew he was going to be a chef when he grew up.
Stir the Pot
After high school, he attended Johnson & Wales University for a four-year culinary degree. When he graduated, he took a job with McDonald’s, where he learned leadership and management. But he felt frustrated that he wasn’t using his actual culinary skills, and eventually started a restaurant with an investor.
He opened Stir the Pot in a tricky location in East Windsor, CT, where nine operators had failed in the previous seven years.
Undaunted and devoted, Mike put himself to work, perfecting his craft in a kitchen where no one told him what to do. The quality of his food meant word spread quickly, and he ran Stir the Pot successfully for seven years before selling the business.
Time for a change
One Sunday, Mike’s mother-in-law was sitting in church. On her left was the regional director of dining services for Benchmark in Connecticut. On her right sat a talent recruiter for culinary showcases at the nearby casinos.
Before the service began, the two executives were talking and at one point Mike’s mother-in-law heard one ask, “Do you know any good chefs in the South Windsor area who are looking for a job?”
So, she introduced herself and told them about her son-in-law who owned the best restaurant in the area and who happened to be looking for a transition out of the restaurant industry.
Mike interviewed with both of them.
After just one tour of The Village at Buckland Court, with its grand ballroom and high-end banquet-style food service, he knew what his choice would be.
But the truth is, he knew even before that. He wanted to give back to the community — not dance in the spotlight.
The face of the kitchen
In the restaurant business, once a cook becomes a chef their responsibilities extend beyond the kitchen and into the dining room, where they visit with guests and put a face to the name.
Chefs call this duty “facing the music,” and for Mike it’s one of his favorite parts of the job at at the assisted living community. Every day he goes and chats with the diners, forming relationships and showing them pictures of his daughters. He even plays pool every week with some of the residents in the billiards room.
“This is much more than a job,” he says. As he told his 2-year-old daughter on the dance floor of the annual winter party, “I have a hundred extra grandparents.”