Amy Weiss | Nov 19, 2020
Cooking beef stroganoff reminds Jaci Von that her dad used to make it weekly. When she makes ice cream sandwiches from scratch, she remembers her childhood—chocolate cookie sticking to fingers, ice cream dripping down wrists. Havenwood of Minnetonka residents love homemade pizza parties, and so does Jaci. Her dad used to make heart-shaped pizzas for Valentine’s Day.
When Jaci talks about her job as director of culinary services at Havenwood of Minnetonka, her passion is evident. What may not be as noticeable, at least at first, is the story behind her dedication.
After serving in the military for four years, including two deployments to the Middle East, Jaci moved back to Minnesota in 2014. Her dad had cancer, and one of the complications with his illness was dementia. Jaci wanted to be closer to family, and soon she discovered a unique way for her father and family to enjoy their remaining time together: food.
No stranger to the culinary industry, Jaci worked at her grandmother’s restaurant in Wisconsin growing up. Her experience in the military also prepared her. “I learned to have structure, be organized and reliable, and to finish something well,” she explained. “All of that helps me work and serve in the kitchen. We work as a team with the same goals and mindset.” After serving, she went to culinary school and worked as a host and pastry chef. She was even on opening teams for Norseman Distillery, St. Genevieve, and Esker Grove, popular spots in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. But when she cooked for her dad, Jaci witnessed firsthand just how powerful food can be.
Food helped her dad remember what dementia tried to forget. When she’d grill, he’d talk about Father’s Day barbeques. Wild mushrooms reminded him of weekends at the cabin, and corn soup brought back memories of eating corn on the cob as a child. So after her dad passed away, Jaci saw the director of culinary services position at Havenwood of Minnetonka and applied.
She already knew the worlds of senior living and food were built on relationships, but she experienced this on a new level when she joined the Walker Methodist team. Her colleagues and supervisors consistently remind Jaci she’s found her passion. Mary Ryan, corporate director of culinary services, is a respected mentor, support, and role model. And Jaci’s quick to praise other team members, including the executive director, fitness technicians, and the director of sales and marketing. “Walker Methodist gives me the tools I need to succeed. They genuinely care,” Jaci said. “I’m encouraged to be creative, and they believe in me.” Jaci even has space for a garden in the back, where she often gathers produce for salads and herbs for pasta sauce.
Her favorite moments? Bringing joy to residents. “Enjoying food I make and or watching cooking demonstrations brings so much happiness to residents, especially in memory care,” Jaci shared. “I’ve learned resident’s life stories. They quickly become family.” Now when Jaci cooks cheeseburgers for resident Lois, she hears stories about Lois’ memories boating on the lake. When she made a peach pie for a bake sale, a World War II veteran bought the whole pie because it reminded him of growing up on a farm and eating his mom’s canned peaches.
Because Jaci strives to bring small moments of joy to residents every day, being told her food brings back memories of something important to residents is one of the best compliments she could receive. She’s found a calling combining excellence, compassion, and relationships. Jaci understands the power of homemade meal and knows fond memories are meant to be cherished. “I realized food does more than nourish someone physically,” said Jaci. “It brings back memories. It creates happiness.”
When she’s not serving delicious food that makes residents smile, Jaci can be found helping at her grandmother’s restaurant, grilling with her family, and cycling with her boyfriend. She loves sailing, hiking in northern Minnesota, and her English Bull terrier.