Mary Kimbrough's Mantra: Always In Good Taste

Dietitians, chefs must learn to work together, 24-year healthcare veteran says. She also advocates a return to whole foods.

FoodService Director - Spotlight - Mary KimbroughMany of the sea changes that have served to burnish the reputation of hospital foodservice can be traced back to the office of Mary Kimbrough, RD, LD, who has served for the past 17 years as director of nutrition and hospitality services at Zale Lipshy University Hospital in Dallas. Today, the Zale Lipshy name is gone from the list of Dallas-area facilities since it, along with its sister hospital, St. Paul’s (acquired in 2001), became part of UT Southwestern University Hospitals in 2005 and is now a state facility.

And, as of last September, Kimbrough’s name is gone from the staff roster as well, since she officially handed on her whisk and Palm Pilot to Ashley Meister, RD, LD, in order to embark upon her very own food tour and special event enterprise (FoodRoots.com).

Heading for the hills: “For the past few years, I’ve been interested in artisanal food growers and wine makers in the Texas Hill Country,” she explains. “I’ve enjoyed doing tours for food groups over the years and hope it brings value to the grower/producers—and perhaps I’ve been able to change how people view food. There should be nutritional value in it, but mainly we [with business partner Mark Haley] want people to reconnect with their roots. I look to do custom tours and events, and set up FoodRoots.com several years ago. I’ve been fortunate in being connected with numerous groups such as Slow Food USA, International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), Les Dames d’Escoffier, etc., so the [business] connections are there.”

A “foodie” since childhood, Kimbrough credits her father, a Presbyterian minister, with having championed her interests in both food and medicine by steering her to a career in dietetics. “I grew up in Fort Worth, went to UT Austin, then did my internship in Milwaukee and have been in Dallas ever since,” she says.

“The first job I applied for was as clinical dietitian at Parkland Health & Hospital System—but they had an administrative job open, overseeing catering and management of kitchen employees, that they thought would suit me better. So, at the age of 22, I wound up with about 55 employees reporting to me. Parkland mentored me well, especially Celia Krazit, MS, RD, LD, director of dietetic services, who I still consider a great mentor and a good friend.”

Mentoring the chefs: In 1989, Kimbrough assumed her position at Zale Lipshy, a boutique hospital that put a strong emphasis on food quality; it needed to be fresh and healthful for both patients and staff. “We were probably out in front of the culinary movement in hospitals in attracting chefs and retaining them,” she points out. “It was hard to figure out what would attract and motivate them. Besides gas cook-tops vs. electric ranges in the kitchen, and chef’s jackets, we found there must be creativity in menu development, great ingredients and being conversant yourself with what’s current in the industry.”

Nurturing that good partnership with chefs has made a huge difference, Kimbrough contends, and that means having respect for what they do and letting them see your awareness of new trends and products.

“At the outset, Victor Gielisse was a great help in developing our Culinary Enhancement Program,” she asserts.

He’s a master chef—a phenomenal culinarian—and he helped us work with chefs and set us up to be a successful culinary department. But without the support of my v.p., Allyn Giacomazzi, it wouldn’t have been possible. He was really my ‘partner’ and supported me when I wanted to hire Victor.”

During the early to mid-1990s, keeping in mind her ongoing goal of de-mystifying healthful cooking through education, Kimbrough helped develop a series of cooking classes at the hospital under the umbrella, “In Good Taste,” later the title of a 444-page cookbook published in 1999 by Prentice Hall in collaboration with Victor and Kathryn Gielisse; sessions were presented in conjunction with the campus’ Center for Human Nutrition.

Kimbrough also pioneered the development of on-site c-stores, offering food-related products including reheatable meals. In addition, she took on other retail operations, such as the gift shop, and, along with food areas, rolled them into broader settings. “With less labor needed it was very successful,” she says. “But then, I’ve had such a great team to work with—that’s why I’ve been here 17 years!”

Tasty ‘diets’: Liberalized diets, a concept gaining broad currency today, was a Kimbrough initiative early on. Instead of focusing on therapeutic diets, she and her staff decided to focus on making food healthful in general.

“Our goal was to get people to want to eat, to be recovering, and to get them home,” she reports. “Plus, there’s a big disconnect between what people did in real life versus in this microcosm. We put the focus on making healthful food taste great.”

Throughout the years, Kimbrough—recipient of the 1998 IFMA Silver Plate in Healthcare—has had two over-arching messages that dovetail neatly with both her past career and the one to come. The first is that dietitians and chefs should become good friends and not adversaries. By working together they can present nutritious food that can look good and taste great. The other is that variety and moderation are the keys to healthy eating. “I’d like to see people going back to whole foods, putting more value back into what we’re eating and valuing the person who produces the food,” she says.

ADA accolade: As a fitting finale to her career, the American Dietetic Association recently named Kimbrough the Lenna Frances Cooper award winner. As recipient of this prestigious accolade, Kimbrough is slated to give a lecture during the ADA’s national conference in Philadelphia next year. Her not-so-secret topic? “It will focus on dietitians being the secret ingredient—too much of a secret even today,” she admits.

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