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Eating good at the Manor

As a young aspiring chef and would-be actor, Eric Eisenberg found behind-the-scenes action in a high-end, high-volume Manhattan restaurant to be very theatrical. Four decades later, as director of dining services at Rogue Valley Manor, the native New Yorker is performing on a different stage for a captive audience that expects a culinary encore 365 days a year.

Eisenberg says he never expected to end up where he is tasked with creating a fine-dining experience for the largest senior living community in Southern Oregon. Twenty-five years ago, the Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef was the executive chef at a classic French eatery on Manhattan’s Eastside, and 20 years ago, he was chef and proprietor of the internationally acclaimed Relais de Lyon, just outside Seattle.

He says colleagues often ask “why on earth” he exited the hustle and bustle of the haute cuisine restaurant scene.

Eisenberg admits that moving to the Rogue Valley was “a significant life decision” for his wife and three sons, ages 9, 11 and 15. However, the role he now plays is not unlike his last.

Before coming to Rogue Valley Manor last fall, Eisenberg was corporate executive chef for Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. After selling his restaurant in 2001 and a brief stint as executive chef at a private golf and country club, he was looking for new horizons and a lifestyle conducive to raising a young family. He landed at Swedish Medical Center in 2004.

He managed the kitchens at the institution’s five acute care hospitals, where he practiced his philosophy of creating fresh-from-scratch foods. He says the menu included more than “meatloaf and mashed potatoes” and other typical hospital fare. He also was part of the team that launched the first-ever 24-hour room service at a hospital of that size.

During his tenure at Swedish Medical Center, Eisenberg was one of five leading industry chefs who left five-star eateries to work in hospitals and assisted-living facilities. Now, he says, there are hundreds “changing the face and taste of hospital food.”

“There are a lot of incredibly talented people in the industry,” he says. “I am proud of the renaissance, the revolution in health care cuisine.”

After several awards for exemplary food service operation, including the coveted Silver Plate Award, Eisenberg was featured in print articles and on radio and TV. He is a popular presenter and speaker at major industry events, including Association for Healthcare Foodservice functions, and has been a contributor to Food Management Magazine. He won bronze and gold medals at national culinary competitions among health care food service professionals, and in 2008 was named one of the top five chefs in the nation by Chef Magazine.

As a certified executive chef, Eisenberg’s new role is both manager and motivator of the kitchen and dining room staffs at Rogue Valley Manor.

“At this stage of people’s lives, food is very important,” says Eisenberg.

“Amazing food is one of life’s greatest pleasures.”

“It’s a huge responsibility” catering to the likes and dislikes of a 1,000 residents, he adds. “Essentially, we are coming into people’s homes” several times a week, if not daily.

“There is a real culture up here where residents expect quality food and quality service.”

Eisenberg loves the challenge.

“Through this job, I feel much more fulfilled,” he says. “I get to show up every day to serve and nurture people, which provides real meaning in my life.

Eisenberg’s career path has had a few twists and turns. He started with little or no desire to work as a professional chef and never dreamed he would become a pioneer in health care cuisine. He says he is blessed by the unexpected rewards of his most recent unexpected career turn.

“What I am doing now is so much more meaningful, much more purposeful.”

Growing up in New Rochelle, New York, in the 1950s, he was introduced to fine food by his father, a would-be caterer who with inspiration from Bon Appétit served up lavish arrays of food.

Entertaining guests to the family’s home with exquisite food was just “a part of life in our family.”

While a student at a boarding school in Poughkeepsie, New York, he rubbed shoulders with students attending the nearby Culinary Institute of America. These aspiring chefs took up temporary residency at the boarding school, allowing Eisenberg to “live on the periphery” of emerging cuisine.

As a young man in the 1970s, he worked as a dishwasher and prep cook in the student union at college and as a chef’s assistant in a small cafe in Manhattan — just a means to an end for a theater arts major, he says. At the prompting of his then-girlfriend, he left the kitchen and went to work as a waiter.

“If I was going to be the next Dustin Hoffman, she figured I’d have a better shot at being discovered and called for auditions if I worked the front of the house.”

That endeavor was short-lived. He went back to the kitchen, where he developed his culinary skills and discovered his passion. For the next decade he worked in some of New York’s finest restaurants. The ambiance and action in the high-end, high-volume eateries “was in itself theater,” he says.

“It was grueling hard work,” he adds. “You hurt and are dripping in sweat just as if you’d won a prizefight. ... but all the while fueling the fire, the passion.”

Eisenberg’s mentors encouraged him to become classically trained — studying in France would round out his resume, they said.

In the mid-1980s, he headed to Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, worked in restaurants along the Avenue des Champs-Élysées and in view of the Arc de Triomphe, and later joined a kitchen staff of 30 at a chateau in the Loire Valley.

The five years working and living in France was an amazing time, he says.

“I began to understand food as culture,” he says. “In France, food is life, a way of life.”

In 1991, Eisenberg returned stateside and became chef at the Embassy of Luxembourg in New York, followed by a stint as executive chef for a classic French restaurant on Manhattan’s Eastside. His dream of owning a classic French restaurant came true when he purchased the internationally acclaimed Relais de Lyon just outside of Seattle in 1996. During his tenure as chef and proprietor of the renamed “Restaurant Relais,” Eisenberg garnered tremendous acclaim locally, receiving 3.5 stars in the Seattle Times and nationally when his restaurant was rated one of America’s Top Tables by Gourmet Magazine.

Newly married with a child on the way, he began to yearn for a more manageable schedule while still being able to exercise his creative talents. He eventually was hired as chef at Swedish Medical Center.

According to Kathleen Petty, a spokesperson for the Association for Healthcare Foodservice, many chefs are leaving the long hours and demanding role of head chef in a five-star restaurant to be executive chef in a healthcare setting or assisted-living community.

“They trade the long hours and hectic, stressful lifestyle for a more manageable schedule,” she says. “They have more time to be creative, to think outside the box, to do what they love.”

Another part of the equation: The shifting trends in health care nutrition.

“Health care organizations are recognizing the role of good food in healing,” adds Petty.

While Eisenberg never expected to wind up in the Rogue Valley, the Manor, he says, is a great place to be. He oversees the kitchens of the Manor’s three high-end restaurants, each with their own distinctive style and menu, advises on catering gigs in the private dining room, and guides the wait staff in an effort to create a fine dining experience in each of the five venues.

Since arriving in October 2017, he said he has worked to build teamwork and foster a culture of collaboration between the Manor’s executive chef and “four very talented chefs.” There are high expectations of quality in preparation and presentation. The farm-to-table philosophy he learned in France works well with the Manor’s use of locally sourced ingredients.

Working with what he calls the Manor’s “culinary minds,” the team developed a six-week menu cycle. He admits he injected a recipe or two of his own, “as did everyone.” The collaboration, he says, will result in “rolling out” a dining program with an even greater emphasis on nutrition.

Although he spends little time cooking in either of the Manor’s fast-paced kitchens, Eisenberg still dons a chef’s coat and hat to greet staff and residents.

He says he feels a closer connection to the food and the patrons at the Manor than he did all those years striving to make a name for himself in culinary circles.

“This (work) is much more valuable,” he says.

Reach Grants Pass freelance writer Tammy Asnicar at tammyasnicar@q.com.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Eric Eisenberg is the director of dining services at Rogue Valley Manor in Medford.