Cooking with Chef Rajeev, Habitat for Humanity volunteer

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Chef Rajeev holding an image of a salad made during Cooking with Chef Rajeev.

After immigrating from India and working everywhere from the Middle East to Europe and a cruise ship in between, Chef Rajeev Patgaonkar has learned the importance of building a community—wherever you are.

An East Lansing resident of 28 years Patgaonkarhas built his community through his job as a chef, often volunteering with local organizations such as the Lansing chapter of Habitat for Humanity, and most recently AgeAlive.

“Being a chef, it is easy to do these promotions because food is involved and it’s a lot easier to get people attracted to that. And when AgeAlive—or should I say MSU AgeAlive– contacted me in 2019 to do their inaugural cooking demo at the Allen Neighborhood Center with the 7 to 70 years program, we had a lot of fun,” said Patgaonkar.

AgeAlive is housed within the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine and the Department of Family and Community Medicine. Directed by Dr. Clare Luz, AgeAlive is dedicated to building intergenerational relationships and increasing well-being and quality of life at all stages of life, through community engagement and enrichment activities.

“It’s a pleasure to work with younger students from MSU. It gives me more energy—I learn from them. And you know, their needs are different, our needs are different, but the basic needs are the same. So, we have something in common, we all need to eat, we all need to breathe, we all need to sleep. And those things are all near and dear to MSU AgeAlive and touch the lives of everyone. And so, it really encourages me and gives me more energy to do more and help,” said Patgaonkar.

Patgaonkar’s program, Cooking with Chef Rajeev, ran its first cooking demonstration on March 25thsince stopping operations during the pandemic. The program teaches participants with limited abilities or facilities how to cook quick, nutritious, easy-to-make meals.

The menu for the upcoming event on April 15th is summer barbecue themed, including salmon with a barbecue rub, a grilled watermelon and arugula salad, and herb seasoned strawberries for dessert.

“If you look at it that can be one dish. You can have watermelon arugula salad with little strawberries and salmon on top. But I’m not doing one dish, I’m doing three different dishes so they can choose whichever they like, and they go from that.”

“The goal behind me thinking like this is how can they simplify and do it in their daily life. You know, I could sit here and do something really process heavy, but can they do that? Where they are living, do they have access to all this stuff? Some people may not have all the tools to cook everything or do everything. That was my goal. Simplicity, but at the same time quality, and ease of progression,” said Patgaonkar.

The recipes, which Patgaonkar developed and dietician approved, are given to participants at the end of the demonstration which, last about an hour.

For Patgaonkar, the demonstrations are about more than sharing his love for cooking, they’re about creating a platform for ageing people to socialize and build new relationships.

“Sometimes their social network is a little bit limited, so this gives people a reason to come out, mingle around, socialize, not only that but nourish yourself with a little good food.  So overall its win win because you’re trying to bring people together that may not have ever met each other, and you never know what beginning there is.”

“That’s what AgeAlive’s goal is, they are trying to bring the seniors or whoever is in their group together and give them the venue to socialize and to get to know people,” said Patgaonkar.

During the pandemic, seniors were especially vulnerable, making socializing hard if not impossible. Now many are still weary of social gatherings.

Despite Patgaonkar’s battle with COVID-19 which left him on oxygen for 10 weeks, Patgaonkar and AgeAlive highlight the importance of social gatherings to wellbeing and mental health.

“I was a pandemic sufferer, I was really sick with Covid; so, to me, I look at it like getting a second chance. Everybody has gone through the pandemic and people are still nervous to get socialized, to mingle, whether it’s free without masks, with masks, still that nervousness is there, and AgeAlive is slowly trying to break that away, we are trying to bring back the normalcy.”

“And yes, we have to be extra careful, we have to be precautionary, we have to be cautious, but life goes on and we need to embrace the life, embrace the social network, the friendship, the camaraderie, the community and together we can make a difference. That’s what the MSU AgeAlive does,” said Patgaonkar.

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