They were probably the wittiest couple in town back then, and they loved giving dinner parties. She usually planned them around a theme, like Mexican or Asian, with place settings to match. Gregarious and wry, she was a terrific hostess.

But then she needed surgery, and afterwards it all got to be too much to take on.

These days the couple eats out sometimes. But mostly they enjoy the dinner entrees and side dishes of their choice, prepared by a chef who had a lifetime of experience in Jackson, and delivered directly to their dining table.

“Oh, no. Now I will have to think again,” joked the husband, when he heard that as residents of Warm Valley Lodge, the assisted living residence in Dubois, he and his wife would begin making their own choices from regularly changing menus.

But later he remarked: “We’re not eating out as much as we used to. It really makes a difference.”

One of the founding principles of assisted living is to encourage autonomy and independence among people as they age. The basic idea is to provide a real home where residents can follow a normal life, while escaping the most burdensome obligations of household activities as they grow older, including cooking, which may be a considerable sacrifice in its own way.

“The ability to make decisions intentionally and independently is a basic human right, yet people living in residential aged care facilities often give up a certain amount of their right to choose what to eat or drink,” wrote the authors of a study published three years ago in the “Journal of Clinical Nursing,” adding that “the loss of autonomy to make food choices is of particular concern, as a lack of choice decreases motivation to eat, placing residents at risk of malnutrition and reducing their quality of life.”

Several recent studies have found that when diners at residences for the elderly are given meal choices, they tend to eat sensibly and tend not to lose weight (which is a major contributor to frailty). Yet anyone who moves into a “residential care facility” may still face daily fare that is “three slabs of whatever – one green, one orange and then one maybe looks like mashed potato or something with gravy” (as one RN described it).

The report in the nursing journal stated that staff in two Australian facilities were more concerned about the nutritional status of meals than about how they were prepared. “They don’t know how to cook anything,” said one 73-year-old resident. “They walk around with the tops like chefs…but they’re just glorified cooks.”

Allen Sphatt probably didn’t know about any of this research when he answered the ad from Warm Valley Lodge for a new head cook. What he did know was that he had grown very tired of driving back and forth over one mountain pass or another. After losing his lease in Driggs and being priced out of Jackson, he had settled in Dubois. So he answered the ad.

What he also knew was that the customary way of doing things was going to be “ridiculously boring.”

As former head of the commissary at Fine Dining Group, which owns breweries and restaurants in Jackson including the Bistro and Bin 22, Sphatt absolutely deserves to wear the chef’s hat. Before that, he was dinner sous chef at Snow King and executive chef at Spring Creek Ranch.

Warm Valley Lodge had been using a menu service to determine the daily meals. “They outline the meal every day,” he explained. “You pull the menu from the computer, make it, serve it, you’re done.”

Soon after being hired as Dietary Manager, Sphatt suggested a different approach to Margaret Chantry, the administrator of the Lodge, and she let him change the system. Himself a Certified Food Manager, he still relies on the menu service and the contracted registered dietician to determine portion control and dietary needs. But he uses his own recipes.

If an entrée is meatloaf, for example, he starts with the menu-service basics and adds seasonings like Worcestershire sauce and thyme, knowing from experience that they enhance the flavor of the beef. His new clientele gets to choose main meal and breakfast options from menus that change every two weeks.

“Al introduces many new menu items that most of us have never experienced, things that he would make in the past or learned from his family,” remarked Chantry. “Based on comments from our monthly resident council meetings, the residents unanimously favor this new system. Also, the staff enjoys the food just as much as the residents, and we choose it over our own.”

Preparing a new menu at Warm Valley Lodge requires two days of intense work: putting the main items into the freezer, making the sauces ahead and replacing what is ordered. Afterward, everything is ready to grab and cooked to order—just like in a restaurant.

Studies show that kitchen staff at some residences for the aging resist the idea of departing from the institutional menus, because it would require too much extra planning and time. But “it plays into my hands,” Sphatt said.

“That’s my experience—not institutional cooking, restaurant cooking,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years. It’s not hard. It’s easy.” And it gives the diners something to think about.