By Ann Davis-Rowe
At Well-Spring, A Life Plan Community in Greensboro, there are few members of the management team as beloved and larger than life – and not just because he’s 6-feet-4-inches tall – than George Galvin, Director of Dining Services.
Born in Queens, N.Y., the middle child of nine children, George mainly grew up on Long Island. As a teen he worked in local food establishments, including a German restaurant owned by his neighbor across the street. While he was lucky to have a small apprenticeship there, he still thought at that point he would go into landscaping
After meeting and marrying his wife, Lisa, his in-laws decided to move south to Florida. George and Lisa followed. Lisa’s uncle owned a restaurant in Del Ray Beach called “The Bridge”, and George landed a job there. This was a true, year-long apprenticeship where he learned every facet of working in a kitchen. Each day’s responsibilities were different, and the daily duties repeated to build experience.
“Being a chef is not an easy job,” George says. “It’s hard work. But what is a struggle originally becomes second nature over time with repetition.”
At The Bridge, George was trained in French cooking. “Jacques Pepin and Julia Child are my people,” he says, adding, “their cooking is my cooking. Simplicity is important, starting with quality ingredients.”
Le Répertoire de la Cuisine is the basis of all French cooking. Originally published in 1914, it lists no methods, just ingredients, for all the mother sauces (béchamel, velouté, espagnole, hollandaise and tomato), along with the classic dishes you build off them.
“When you open a professional kitchen each day,” George explains, “you have to set up a steam table with all of the sauces, because that is what you need for the rests of the items you will serve.”
The first time George was put in charge of the line, “it was not a huge raving success,” he admits. “One of the most important things I learned was how to ‘get out of the weeds.’” In restaurant speak, that’s when a kitchen is getting behind on incoming orders. To overcome such circumstances is “a feeling of success because you have to do it over and over again.” With experience, you learn how to get out of each sort of pickle that pops up and how to head off problems before they impact service. “It’s all about the preparation, the preparedness for each day.”
At Well•Spring, George brings this classic, continental cooking discipline to a retirement living setting. But there were a few stops along the way from that apprenticeship to his 26 years at Well-Spring.
From The Bridge he moved back to Long Island to work in a series of bistro settings. After a few years and missing the beach, as well as navigating Long Island’s high cost of living, the Galvins returned to West Palm Beach, Fla., where George found a position as a chef at a monthly rental retirement community. There, his boss believed in grooming chefs for management positions, because then when there was an issue, they could always step back into the line to cook. George’s management career took him next to the Palms West Hospital, where his boss there encouraged him to go to school to become a Certified Dietary Manager.
The hospital was George’s first experience in long-term care dining. And you know what they say about hospital food.
“I kind of broke the stereotype,” George recalls. As evidenced today by the food served throughout Well•Spring, George eschews “institutional” food. “I believe in treating every diner the same, whether they are an Independent Living resident or at a different level of care” in Assisted Living, Skilled Care or Memory Support.
Then, along came Well-Spring.
A former supervisor reached out to George and made him aware of an opportunity to head Dining Services for Well-Spring. With a final move to Greensboro, the Galvins found a home halfway between their Long Island roots and their family in Florida. And during the past 26 years, George has worked tirelessly to dispose of any hint of “nursing home food”.
“We have never wavered from our diligence that quality and consistency remain the same, if not higher,” he says.
One way he has done this is to do away with the standardized recipe books so many other facilities use. “We use almost no recipes,” George points out. “And we’re cooking quality food from scratch.”
Well•Spring cooks can accomplish this because they, too, are trained just as they would be at a fine dining restaurant – just as George was – perfecting the basics and learning each part of the kitchen through repetition and experience. That consistency is key to Well•Spring’s reputation as the best restaurant in town.
“We earned that reputation through hard work,” George says. “Every day we have a preconceived notion of what the end product will be. Everyone buys in.”
When George first moved to Greensboro, he realized one part of his cooking experience was lacking.
“I had to come north to get to the south,” he quips. Shortly after arriving at Well•Spring, George quickly had to learn the ins and outs of proper Southern cooking. Since then, he has significantly diversified Well-Spring’s menus, including more of his favored French cooking. Many of the changes have occurred because residents these days are asking for more variety – exploring more foods and ingredients on their own and encouraging their neighbors to do the same.
“Nearly three decades ago, George came upon the scene at Well-Spring and changed our culinary expectations forever,” says Steve Fleming, president and CEO. “Today, great food and a superior dining experience are expected by those who live here. And thanks in large part to George, Well-Spring boasts what many people call ‘the best restaurant in Greensboro.’”
When not making every day more delicious for the residents at Well•Spring, George is doing it at home.
“I have a passion for cooking. I love everything about it. It’s creating things with your hands and seeing people enjoy it.”
George’s number one tip for making home-cooking fun, and not just another daily chore, is also his number one tip for cooking professionally: mise en place, or setting up everything before starting. This removes much of the stress and better positions you for success.
George and Lisa often share their home kitchen, as she also is an excellent cook, on top of being a self-taught baker whose own creations are copies of delicacies on the covers of Gourmet magazine.
“I am one of those very fortunate people who can say they spent their career doing what they love,” George says.