This article appears in the November edition of 400 Life Magazine.
Let’s put it this way: If you are discounting assisted living food for something reminiscent of your elementary cafeteria line, you’re still living in those dark ages. Point in case: Chef Antonio Castro, the dining director at Arbor Terrace South Forsyth in Johns Creek.
Under his direction since late 2020, he’s transformed the kitchen and dining room into something that’s reminiscent, instead, of a cozy family dinner table.
He curates menus to please seasoned palates and experiences to make every bite something to be shared with friends and family. In fact, he feels like these people are his family — and it’s better than Mama used to make.
Actually, it’s more accurate to say it’s a whole lot better than what his maid used to make. A family blended in Italian and Peruvian, Castro grew up in Lima, Peru, where it was customary for families to employ a maid to help around the house, including dinner, while the parents worked.
“She was a horrible cook,” Castro admitted, laughing. “I would save my money that my dad would pay me for working at their photography store and go to the market to buy my own food so I could make my own dinner.”
He credits her though, because if he hadn’t had to learn how to cook, he wouldn’t have discovered how much he loved it. Her influence still surfaces today, as one of his signature dishes features the quinoa she introduced to him at a young age.
Named quinotto by Castro, this risotto-style quinoa dish blends his Peruvian upbringing with his Italian roots and tastes a lot better than the quinoa and milk the maid used to make.
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Castro’s experience with cooking grew from those afternoons at the market into living with his uncle Giuseppe in Tivoli, Rome as a young adult, and working in his restaurant. Of course, he was there to attend school to be an architect, but preferred days and nights in the restaurant and frequent vacations to France and Germany made the architect dream less of a reality.
Soon, Uncle Guiseppe made the executive decision that culinary school would be a better fit. Nearly a decade later, Castro remembers going home to Peru to visit his family, for the first time since he left for Italy.
“My dad had planned a big family dinner. Everyone was there – my uncle Giovanni, my aunt Carmella, my cousins, everyone,” he said. “When I got there, he said, ‘Oh! Everyone come see Antonio! My son, the architect! He’s home! We are so proud of you!’ I had to say, ahh well, I’m not an architect, I’m actually… a chef! And by that time, we were on our second glass of wine, so I don’t think they were too disappointed.”
How could they be? After graduating from Scuola Alberghiera in Rome, he honed his talent in Italy and in the U.S. working in cafés, restaurants and even owning his own before landing in the assisted living industry as a dining director.
“I was going through a very difficult time in my life, and needed to find something to do,” said Castro. “When I got to the interview, they said they had filled the position already, but that I could be a server. I got all the way to my car, before I humbled myself and went back in to say I’d rather keep myself busy doing something than turn it down.”
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He worked his way up through that company that eventually sent him all over the country doing a little bit of everything. But in one year, he realized he had spent more than 360 days away from home, and knew it was time to take a break.
“I decided to take a few weeks off before finding something else,” said Castro. “I just wanted to rest for a bit and think about what I really wanted to do next. But the next day, my friend called me and told me about this position in Johns Creek. It was close to home, so I applied. They called me the same day and wanted me to come in right then.”
That visit would also serve as his cooking test, and in 30 minutes and one eggplant parmigiana with spaghetti later, he got the job in a day. That proved his talent was impressive, sure, and that was a little to do with having just the right kind of fork in your car to make the perfect pasta nest on the plate; but it also goes beyond making great food. Rather, it’s who he is cooking for that makes him love it and want to be good at it, and from that day, Arbor Company has allowed him to combine that love for what happens in the kitchen with an even greater passion for people.
“Anyone can follow a recipe, you know,” said Castro. “But that doesn’t mean anything to the people who eat your food. You have to put love and attention into it to make it something special.”
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“This isn’t like a restaurant, where you might have a few regulars, but you mostly see people one time or once a year at best. This place, this is these people’s home. They live here. I am part of their family,” he said. “I love knowing that Mrs. Robinson doesn’t like chicken, or when I get to create a special meal for a few guys who just turned 100. I love that they’ll stop me to ask what I am serving for dessert tonight and see how excited they get when I tell them it’s key lime pie. They’re like little kids again. You just don’t get that in a restaurant. That really drives me to want to give them the best.”
His passion carries over into his team, one that includes experienced cooks who respond to the challenges he presents to produce exceptional options for the residents.
“I know what they’re good at, and what they’re curious about,” said Castro. “I know who has the best roast chicken and who does the best fish, but I also love to hear them want to try it different ways, or when they’re excited to show me something else they can do.”
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Lucky residents, who experience oft-seen menus of short ribs with port wine reductions, grilled jumbo asparagus and scallops or lobster tails.
The most requested dish? Cook Terry Moore’s Seafood Gumbo full of seafood, chicken, sausage and vegetables that puts a stew-spin on Spain’s coveted Paella favorite. Of course, Castro will be the first to tell you that no matter how much filet mignon or European delicacy you offer, this Southern crowd’s favorite is fried chicken with mashed potatoes and green beans (covered in gravy). But rest assured, it’s the best around.
“One of my favorite things is when they’ll ask me where I’m from, and I say, The South!” laughed Castro. “They look at me funny, and I say, what? No one can be more Southern than me — I’m from South America!”
Yet another reason Castro loves his job: he gets to be front of the house and back of the house under one roof.
“Here, I get to cook and I get to entertain — I don’t have to entertain, of course, but I love to. It’s the best part of my job.”
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