Tim LeCorgne had a passion for cooking. But then that passion started diminishing.
Four years ago he rediscovered it … and something else.
LeCorgne found his satisfaction for cooking – fine cooking – reawakened, and it was supplemented by an additional feeling. Family. A dining family.
LeCorgne is a bear of a guy – large, outgoing and a little bushy. Spending his early years in Louisiana, he arrived in Lincoln just before entering high school when his father, a chef in his own right, was transferred to Nebraska.
While in Louisiana, he spent most of his time in New Orleans, and it was at his father’s side in that city that he started learning how to cook.
One of the most important things he learned about cooking was that it wasn’t static – it was moving, variable and personal. Recipes were for the basics; the finished dish was a creation achieved through trial and error.
His father would question him about the making of gumbo – “Here you go. Does it need a touch of something? Taste it. Does it need more [spice]? Does it have the flavor that you want?”
He also learned professional talents such as how to relate to people, be a leader of co-workers and the ability to communicate with customers.
LeCorgne still operates under the insights from his father. “Make it right by what you feel it should be, as opposed to paper instructions.”
A self-taught chef, LeCorgne learned the craft through experience from bussing tables to line cook to management to executive chef.
Over the years, he worked at several dining establishments in Lincoln. But as the years passed, he started to feel a slow decline in his passion. When the last place he was at closed, Lady Luck intervened.
There was a temporary kitchen position at Savannah Pines Retirement Community. As his talents and abilities in the kitchen became more obvious, it wasn’t long before he was promoted to executive chef of the independent living facility.
The first facility – as well as corporate headquarters – of almost 30 Savannah Pines Resort Lifestyle Communities across the country, the Lincoln establishment hosts 150-some residents who have made LeCorgne feel part of a large family.
LeCorgne creates menus on a week-to-week basis, consulting a computer base of meals to avoid consistent duplication. He also visits with Savannah Pines residents to see if there is a dish that they haven’t had for a long time, or one that reminds them of their childhood.
He says that he will explore computer sites for existing recipes, but always with the idea of adding in his own tweaks to their preparation.
LeCorgne oversees a kitchen staff of 10, explaining that he invites creativity and ideas from his cooks. That includes allowing the freedom to consider what they would like to do with a specific dish.
“It’s a learning kitchen,” he says. “If there are mistakes, they learn how to do better, but they have at least tried out their ideas.” The unsaid part of this freedom is that if an idea works with a dish, everyone learns something.
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Savannah Pines offers breakfast, lunch and dinner menus daily. Breakfast options are somewhat set, but the choices for lunch and dinner have more variety with care not to have too frequent repetitions. Two different main courses are always offered and include such options as spaghetti and meatballs, pot roast, lobster macaroni and cheese, shrimp scampi, steak and meatloaf. LeCorgne’s Louisiana heritage surfaces with such dishes as shrimp creole and red beans and rice.
There is also a fine dining option that Savannah Pines residents can sign up for, which includes full wait service, wine and a separate dining area.
LeCorgne and his staff participate in theme events that Savannah Pines presents for the residents monthly, as well as larger, special affairs such as Mardi Gras (surprise!), for which LeCorgne prepared King Cake, fried alligator and more.
LeCorgne has received numerous awards from Savannah Pines’ parent company Resort Lifestyle Communities, including the Highest Resident Satisfaction Award for three straight years.
Part of LeCorgne’s connection with the residents is his dedicated efforts to maintain a relationship with them.
He says that dinner is the biggest get-together time for residents, so he makes it standard practice to stop by the tables to converse. He keeps track of which dishes are popular and which ones are not. “Is the sauce sweet enough or is it too sweet? What did you think of the marinade?”
“People are laughing and talking about the food, and more than that, I get to know these people, hear them talk about their mother making the same dish. I get to relate to them,” he says.
“The purpose [for LeCorgne] is not just to cook food, but to remind them of good experiences around cooking and eating,” he adds.
And there is that communication … that expanded familial thing between diner and chef, that thing that returned the passion of cooking and satisfying people to LeCorgne.
“Savannah Pines is an expansion of family for me,” LeCorgne says. “My wife and kids will come down occasionally, and the residents relate to them too. It is like my kids have 150 grandparents.”
That reinvigoration is reflected in LeCorgne’s freedom to experiment with new flavors and spices and combinations – creating something that is not too far out of the realm, but something that is a surprise for the diner.
He uses his Korean Pork Belly as an example – pork belly marinated in Yakitori, served with Korean barbecue sauce and riced cauliflower. “Some [residents] were hesitant, but most liked it,” he says.
LeCorgne’s favorite dish to create at Savannah Pines is shrimp creole. “It is not difficult to make, but when you get it just right, with the flavors just right, you know it and you feel good.”
A monthly cake for those celebrating birthdays also excites LeCorgne. He admits that he is not a big baker or decorator, but for Savannah Pines he taught himself. Now, when he wheels out a three-tier decorated birthday cake and residents want their picture taken with the cake, he wants to keep improving even more.
Like anyone, LeCorgne enjoys compliments, admitting that when someone tells him that “the food was good,” he appreciates it. “But when someone asks me to ‘put that on the menu again – soon!’ it really means something,” he admits. “There is that ‘WOW’ factor, and you can tell they really mean it. It’s personal.”
Sort of like something a family member would say.