As the Food Services Director of Decatur House, Helene Rogers is responsible for planning our menus, ordering food and supplies, and overseeing meal preparation.
If you step inside the kitchen when Helene is on duty, you might sense the tantalizing aroma of simmering chowder, blending nicely with the sweet country sound of a Hank Williams ballad.
Helene’s mission is to provide nourishing meals that are nicely presented, and pleasing to residents with diverse tastes.
“It took me a while to learn everybody’s likes and dislikes,” she said.
Each week’s menus include a few meals that are distinctly regional, dishes like Helene’s signature seafood chowder, a rich mix of cream, sherry, bacon, lobster, cod, scallops and “a lot of butter.”
There might be a succulent lobster roll, golden-fried fish and chips, or creamed salmon and peas on buttery mashed potatoes — a dish that reminds Decatur House resident Jeanette of countless family suppers in her native Maine.
Because Helene likes to “try new things,” she also draws inspiration from outside New England, with offerings like quesadillas or a hummus wrap.
“I very rarely use a recipe,” she said. “If I eat out at a restaurant, I try to figure what’s in [the dish], then go home and try to do it.”
Helene admits that baking was not her strong suit, but she adapted quickly, and now turns out an array of scrumptious confections.
Our dessert-lovers can also rely on Cynthia, who shares cooking duties with Helene. Cynthia’s background as a baker is reflected in each of her decidedly decadent cheesecakes, pies and cakes. Filling out the kitchen staff is Payton, who displays a youthful eagerness to learn the culinary crafts.
Helene’s path to Decatur House began in Norwood, Mass., where she grew up in a family of 10 children.
Before embarking on her cooking career, Helene started “a little boutique” in Mansfield. There, she marketed her own silk-screened and tie-dyed creations, as well as works by local artists. During the holiday season, Helene sold her merchandise from a push-cart inside a nearby mall.
But even while pursuing her retail ventures, Helene “always had a job in a restaurant,” and it was there that her interest in cooking began to develop.
“I loved food, and always had an interest in its preparation,” she said. “I was always asking chefs, ‘How do you make this and that dish.’ ”
Helene had to ask, as her flair for cooking certainly was not genetic. “My mother wasn’t a great cook,” she said, with an affectionate laugh.
Yet, Helene must have displayed some early promise, both as a hostess and cook. In her high school yearbook, a classmate wrote, “One of my favorite memories is candlelight dinners at Helene’s.”
“They liked my omelets,” she said, with a laugh. Omelets enhanced, perhaps, by the candlelit setting and elegant presentation?
Nearly 20 years ago, Helene bought The Black Duck restaurant in Woods Hole, and there her cooking career began in earnest – out of necessity.
“My chef left on Mothers’ Day!” she said.
Helene operated the restaurant for a decade, time spent honing her culinary skills. Shortly after selling the business, she met, and married, Peter, and also did some food catering.
When daughter Mackenzie headed off to Simmons University to pursue a nursing career, Helene and her son, Charlie, discussed opening a restaurant together. Charlie had plenty of restaurant experience, complemented by a degree in hospitality, so the prospect made sense.
Six years ago, their dream became a reality when Helene spotted a restaurant for lease in Buzzards Bay.
“The minute I saw it, I fell in love!” she said, and since then the mother and son duo have operated the popular Stomping Grounds Grille. While Helene is busy at Decatur House, Charlie runs the restaurant.
Some fun facts you may not have known about Helene:
- She loves to ski, “especially out west”, but also enjoys golfing and swimming.
- She grew up near Decatur House resident Ruth L., a fellow Norwood native. Both worshipped at St. Catherine’s Catholic Church, and still share a fondness for Furlong’s ice cream. [Furlong’s Candies & Ice Cream, a Norwood landmark, has been satisfying the sweet tooth of locals for over 80 years.]
- As a long-time member of the Norwood Recettes, a baton twirling corps, Helene was a state champion twirler!
- Helene’s astrological sign is Libra, the sign shared by many of the best cooks and chefs. The qualities they share are a keen palate, the confidence to experiment, and a sense of flair.
- Helene plans to assist our new Decatur House Garden Club, helping residents grow fresh herbs and vegetables to enhance our meals.
By Maureen Boyce, Decatur House Activities Coordinator