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Chef serves up music for dessert

Shortly after Chef Rick Saunders finished plating a stack of buttermilk pancakes, he took his guitar out of a nearby closet and headed to the chapel.

Saunders, a chef at a Fergus Falls nursing home’s short stay unit, keeps his guitar nearby when he works.

During his breaks between meals, he plays the guitar and sings old time favorites. The residents often join him for an impromptu sing-a-long. And every other weekend when he works at the nursing home, Saunders sings during the chapel service.

He’s thrilled to have a job where he can share his two interests – cooking and music – with others, Saunders said.

Those talents were inspired by his parents. Some might call Saunders a “military brat.” His father was in the service and stationed in the U.S. and overseas. While moving was a challenge the military family learned to deal with, Saunders got to experience different cultures and foods across the globe.

He was born in Italy and recalls going to the European markets with his mom. In Munich, Germany, his mother would buy wonderful German pastries, brioche and breads from a woman who did all the baking in her home. In Italy they sampled pastas and sauces.

After their buying trips, Saunders would often help his mom in the kitchen. He said it was “great  fun.” He hasn’t lost that enthusiasm in his 45 years as a chef.

During their travels, the family always brought Saunders’ father’s guitar. His father never played it. He didn’t know how, Saunders said. But he’d always intended to learn how – someday.

Unfortunately, that day never happened. His father died, and the family moved to Fergus Falls to be near relatives. Among their possessions was the guitar. Saunders, who was 16 at the time, picked it up one day and taught himself to play it.

“It was how I think I coped with it all,” he said.

His father was a Hank Williams fan and the young Saunders quickly learned a few of the country star’s hits.

Before he could hit the road as a musician, Saunders joined the Navy after his high school graduation. He served at a naval training base as a jet mechanic during the Vietnam war, he said. But he didn’t intend to have a military career like his father, Saunders said.

All he wanted to really do was cook. He graduated from a culinary course at a technical college and worked with the food service at a national hotel chain.

His guitar was never far away. When he wasn’t cooking, Saunders was singing. He entered the Minnesota Country Music Tri-State Competition in Iron, Minn., in the early 1990s and won a trip to Nashville, he said. Saunders got to play at the Grand Ol’ Opry and visit music studios. He had a chance to “shop” a song he’d written to the studios, and he received plenty of advice.

If he intended to seriously consider music as a career, he was told he should move to Nashville. He did consider it, but it wasn’t in the cards, Saunders said.

“It’s hard to be a professional musician and work at the same time,” he said. “You need to get paid to support yourself.”

He doesn’t regret the trip. It was a honor, Saunders said. And it gave him a view of what life is like in the music business. But cooking, he said, was a more stable career choice.

He continues to dabble in songwriting. Saunders has been known to write a verse on a napkin or a notepad. Sometimes he ends up with lots of pieces of paper. He doesn’t plan to make it his second career. Those that do sit down every day and dedicate the time and effort to write, he said.

“I can’t do that,” he said. “I will come up with an idea or I will get a feeling for something that will strike a chord. I really kind of stumbled into it because I just love music.”

The songs he writes now are inspirational and in a folk vein, he said. The songs are not gospel, but he tries to always be positive.  Many residents can be seen tapping their toes as Saunders sings a tune. Interacting with the residents, whether it’s serving a meal he’s prepared or singing a familiar tune together, is a rewarding experience, he said.

And its therapeutic. Some residents may be very quiet when the enter the unit, but have confidence when they sing a familiar tune.

“I am amazed at the power of music and what it can do for people,” he said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the gift.”

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