Senior Center's New Cook's Focus Is Flavor

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"Lunch is an important part of the day to our seniors," says Mishelle Wharton, new chef at the Payson Senior Center. "They come for the sociability as well as the food."

Preparing appetizing and healthful menus is the mission of this young woman who began her culinary career at the tender age of 15. Actually, she was hired to work as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Globe, but when the head chef, who was a family friend, injured her arm, Wharton was recruited to cook under her direction.

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Payson Senior Center's new cook, Mishelle Wharton, scours the Internet and other resources to find nourishing, flavorful meals to cook for Rim country senior citizens.

After a brief detour into the field of paramedics --he is an emergency medical technician and is CPR certified --harton returned to pursuing a career encompassing such positions as kitchen manager at Los Vaqueros Western Steakhouse and Superstition Skies Restaurant, both in Apache Junction, lead cook at Bushwackers Food and Spirits in Bisbee, and most recently, executive chef at the Cornerstone Bakery and Cafe in Ruidoso, N.M.

It was at Cornerstone that she experienced one of the highlights of her career: she had the opportunity to cook for Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

"He shook my hand and we had a good conversation," she said.

When deciding to return to Arizona to be closer to her brother and his family in Mesa, she ruled out the Valley ("too hot," she said), and considered relocating to the Lakeside/ Pinetop area, but finally settled on Payson because of the agreeable climate and proximity to Mesa.

While eating at a local restaurant, she was introduced to two employees of the Senior Center kitchen, who told her about an opening there for a cook. She submitted her resume and the rest is history.

"Cooking for seniors requires balancing salt and spices to seniors' needs and tastes," she said. "I try to be receptive to their suggestions. For example, recently I've had requests for more foods, and particularly desserts, suitable for diabetics. I'm in the process of researching these and other requests and hopefully they will be added to the menu in the near future."

Not only does Wharton and her staff prepare hot, nourishing lunches for up to 90 people each weekday, but they also make 50 to 60 lunches for the Meals on Wheels program which brings a hot meal to those who are homebound.

"I cook in two shifts," she said. "The Meals on Wheels must be ready to go by 9:30 each morning. After that, I start again on the lunches to be served in the dining room."

Wharton has an extensive recipe collection and enjoys experimenting with new dishes.

"I'm an Internet fanatic," she said. In her spare time, she usually can be found perusing recipes on her computer.

Together with Marsha Cauley, Senior Center director, she has devised monthly menus featuring a number of new entrees such as stuffed meatloaf, honey sesame chicken, veal Parmesan, and the diners' favorite, chicken fried steak. All entrees are served with potatoes or rice, vegetable, dessert and beverage.

"And there's no tax or tipping," Cauley said.

Meals are served at noon in the Center's dining room at 514 W. Main Street. Cost is $3 for guests 60 and older, $4.50 for those under the age of 60. Reservations must be made by 4 p.m. of the previous day and transportation is available for those needing it.

To receive a monthly menu, make a reservation or request transportation, call (928) 474-4876 between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays.

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