Norman Skau lived at Atterdag College as a child and is now the food service director at Atterdag Village.
To celebrate and reinforce their culture, Solvang’s Danish immigrants founded Atterdag College in 1914. Students lived on campus, where educators from around the world taught everything from literature to folk dancing. The college quickly flowered as the community’s social center.
In 1953, community leaders built a small retirement facility, Solvang Lutheran Home, next to the beloved college. After 14 years and substantial growth, administrators decided to hire an on-staff nurse. They chose Hanne Skau, who had recently moved to the Valley from northern California. Hanne’s husband, Rudy, had opened a Danish fresh-roasted coffee shop in Solvang.
“She was the only nurse for many years,” remembers her son, Norman Skau. “She was head nurse, assistant nurse, part-time nurse, she was all of them. She worked at the home for 23 years.”
As part of her pay, Hanne received lodging for her family on the third floor of Atterdag College.
“It was great,” Norman remembers. “It was like I had a giant fort with all these rooms to play in and we had the best view in town.”
He played cards and chess with the residents and learned the finer points of shuffleboard. One elderly gentleman even made him a wooden chessboard that Norman still cherishes and uses often.
When bulldozers razed Atterdag College in 1970 to make way for an expanded Solvang Lutheran Home, the Skaus were forced to move.
“I was very sad,” Skau says. “I had so much fun living there.”
In 1975, at age 16, Skau got his first job: washing dishes at Solvang Lutheran Home. Earning “a whopping $2.20 an hour,” he had unwittingly launched a successful career in the culinary arts.
After high school, Skau enjoyed a ski-bum interlude at Lake Tahoe, where he worked his way up from busboy to waiter to graveyard shift cook, and later, to broiler and sauté chef at a high-end restaurant.
He earned a degree in hotel and restaurant management at Santa Barbara City College, became head chef at Village Country Club, and later helped open the Los Olivos Café, where he was the first chef. Skau then took a pay cut to become food service director at Villa Santa Barbara.
“I thought it would be temporary, but I loved it,” Skau smiles. “I worked there nine years. It was so rewarding to improve the food and help make the residents happy.”
At a food industry seminar in 2004, Skau met Lee Gauthier, who was the dietician and food service director at Solvang Lutheran Home, which had expanded to include the Santa Ynez Valley Recovery Residence. He mentioned that his mother had worked at the home and that he’d dreamed of being food service director there.
“Lee wanted to go back to being just the dietician,” he laughs, ”and she told me I could have the job. I’ve come full circle for sure!”
Returning to the scene of his happy childhood, Skau quickly put his organizational and culinary skills to work in the kitchen.
“We made a lot of food changes,” he says. “We used to buy crabcakes and now they’re homemade. Once a month, we do a group birthday dinner with prime rib and salmon, and for Danish Days, we’ve added a smorgasbord.
“A lot of the residents are chefs themselves,” he continues. “They’ve been cooking for their families for years and they make suggestions. It’s their home, so I try to make whatever they want.”
Besides preparing three meals a day for residents of Atterdag Village and SYV Recovery Residence, Skau and his team of 36 employees feed the patients and staff at Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital. They also provide food for the Solvang Senior Center, as well as three local routes covered by Meals on Wheels.
“We cook for so many different locations, there’re a lot of challenges,” Skau admits. “It’s not so much making the food good, that’s the easy part. It’s keeping everybody happy despite the different dynamics, personalities and preferences.
“But I’ve got a great staff that supports me,” he adds, “and without them, I couldn’t do it.”
When Skau decided new computer software would help him formulate diets, determine portions and control inventory, he proposed hosting a luau fundraiser to help pay for it. He credits the facility’s interim administrator, Edward Steinfeldt, with supporting the effort.
Steinfeldt, who served as administrator at Casa Dorinda for many years, came on board in 2007 to help implement a master plan that includes remodeling a number of units and revamping the Recovery Residence, the only skilled nursing facility in the Valley.
“We’ll be making enhancements to the entire campus through architecture and landscaping,” Steinfeldt explains. “We’ll start the Recovery Residence project next spring and be making changes over the next three to five years.”
As part of the plan, the board of directors renamed the facility Atterdag Village of Solvang, to reflect both its local origins and the fact that it is open to people of all denominations. With an emphasis on “healthy retirement living,” Atter-dag Village looks to a promising future that includes meeting the needs of the baby boomer generation.
“I’ve been in this industry for thirty years,” Steinfeldt says, “and Atterdag Village is probably the nicest community in terms of the services it provides for the money.
“It’s very affordable,” he continues, “and offers multiple levels of care as people need it. And to help residents who run out of funds, we have the proceeds from the Serendipity Shop.”
Built and supported by locals, Atterdag Village of Solvang offers a continuum of care and services. The capable staff provides meals, transportation and amenities, as well as friendship, security and help when needed.
“I think everyone knows,” Skau says, “that besides Friendship House, which is geared toward Alzheimer’s patients, we’re the only full retirement home that offers every level of care.
“It’s a complete community,” he adds, thrilled to be part of it again, “and just like having a local hospital, it’s a very good thing.”
Atterdag Village of Solvang is located at 636 Atterdag Rd. For more information, call 688-3263 or visit peoplewhocare.com