Institutional cuisine not an oxymoron at Austin’s Querencia

Tilly Keung, RN, and Executive Chef Ron Cooke of Querencia at Barton Creek

Tilly Keung, RN, and Executive Chef Ron Cooke of Querencia at Barton Creek

When my mother told me she loved the food at her new retirement home, I was concerned. She is on a salt-restricted diet, and treats dropped off by well-meaning neighbors have occasionally resulted in a trip to the ER.

Last month I got to try the food myself on a visit to Querencia at Barton Creek in Austin and she’s right, the food is very good. Everybody on the staff insisted it is made with “very little salt” so I asked for a meeting with Executive Chef Ron Cooke to see how he does it.

Chef Cooke told me he believes in using quality ingredients (he buys Certified Angus Beef and Niman Ranch pork, just like me) and preparing them in a way that allows the natural flavors to shine through. For example, fresh vegetables are often grilled to caramelize the natural sugars then finished in the oven. This provides a satisfying mouthfeel without adding anything but heat.

Herbs—he mentioned rosemary, thyme, chives, basil and black pepper—are used “to add flavors to mask the fact it’s not buried in salt.” Querencia even worked with R.L. Schreiber to develop a salt-free blend that’s “like Mrs. Dash, but just for us.” And he’s particularly proud of a soup base that has just 90 milligrams of sodium per serving (anything below 140 mg is considered low salt).

As a result, according to staff dietician Tilly Keung, salt intake averages 1900 milligrams per day—well below the USDA recommendation of 2300 per day and not that far above my mother’s allotment of 1600 milligrams; she’s able to stay in bounds through judicious choices and by eating breakfast in her residence.

During my several meals, a personal highlight was a chickpea curry for which Chef Cooke generously shared the recipe. I had it with unconventional sides of creamed spinach and red cabbage because they were available and I wanted to try as many things as I could. This is another challenge to the kitchen at Querencia: there are typically 4 entrees with an array of soups, salads and sides available and residents can mix and match them in any way they choose.

Ron Cooke has been the chef here for 4 years and was at the Austin Country Club before that; many of his former regulars are now his customers once again. He is humble and gracious about the need to provide a quality dining experience for people who, he points out, often don’t have any choice but to eat his cooking.

This means the kitchen at Querencia is no place for egotistical chefs. “You have to be a people person, have to take suggestions. Eat my French onion soup or go hungry doesn’t work here.” The customer focus also extends careful plating and presentation by a courteous and professional waitstaff who will pour you a glass of wine (but not two) with your dinner.

“It’s unlike anywhere I’ve ever worked—nothing like a freestanding restaurant. There you make your menu, build your flavor profiles. Here everybody chooses their sides. In a restaurant you are in charge. Here we come to your house and cook for you every day.”

All this goes to show that institutional cooking doesn’t have to be bland or boring as long as the kitchen takes its limitations as a creative challenge instead of an excuse. Chef Cooke and his staff are doing an exemplary job at Querencia. Thanks for taking such great care of my mom.

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