Chef Anna Coconati turns sweet memories into sweet treats

Though she didn’t come from a family of passionate cooks, Anna Coconati, pastry chef at Vi at Highlands Ranch, was bitten by the culinary bug at a young age.

“I read a lot of Martha Stewart cookbooks — she’s such a perfectionist, and I love that!” Coconati said. Likewise, Coconati strives to create the perfect dessert options for the community.

Becoming a chef

In 2011, Coconati interviewed for the pastry chef position at Vi at Highlands Ranch. Executive Chef Greg Strickland recalls being impressed by her pastry mastery, even though she lacked a formal culinary degree. 

“Anna came here with so much knowledge and passion,” Strickland said. “Learning while working in the business is more valuable than a culinary degree in a lot of ways.”

Since joining the Denver retirement community, Coconati says the biggest difference between working in fine dining and senior living isn’t the quality of ingredients or diversity of the food she prepares. Instead, it’s having the opportunity to get to know residents over time, as well as the ability to fine-tune her desserts based on their feedback.

“Whenever I make something fancy or more creative or new, there are always adventurous residents eager to try them,” Coconati said, “but everyone’s favorites always fly out of the kitchen.”

Getting resident feedback

Coconati seizes the opportunity to interact directly with residents during the community’s weekly “Culinary Corner.” She and Strickland get out of the kitchen every Monday to meet with residents and discuss upcoming specials at the restaurant, from the ingredients and dietary restrictions to how each dish will be prepared. 

It’s also a great time to get feedback from residents on past meals. “We always want to know what our residents love — and give them more of that!” Coconati said.

By far, Coconati’s biggest hits with residents are her classic desserts: American apple pie, vanilla-bean crème brûlée, and chocolate eclairs.

“Everybody has their favorite version of certain desserts — and though that sometimes means mine can’t live up to their memories, sometimes residents will actually share the recipes they love with me,” Coconati said. 

Executive Chef Strickland says Coconati’s connection to the residents is her greatest strength.

“Some chefs forget that it’s not just about the food,” Strickland said. “But she’s always cared about our residents as much as she does her desserts.”