Culinary candor

Published in FSD Update

“I don’t know another way,” says one hospital chef about his from-scratch approach to food.

I had an absolutely wonderful and enlightening conversation last week with Justin Johnson, the 35-year-old executive chef and unofficial foodservice director at Watertown Regional Medical Center. I had driven to Watertown, a Wisconsin town of about 27,000 people midway between Milwaukee and Madison, to see the Harvest Market, the 95-seat restaurant Johnson has created at the 90-bed hospital.

Johnson was hired in 2012 from Milwaukee’s Hotel Metro to transform the foodservice program at Watertown into one that would change people’s perception of what hospital food is—and can be. Administrators wanted the department’s mantra to be “food is medicine,” but they wanted the food to be medicine people would enjoy taking.

To accomplish that goal, Johnson embraced an approach that is common in independent restaurants but not so much in the healthcare environment. The chef wanted his staff to make virtually everything from scratch.

“People ask me why I thought it would work, why I decided to do everything from scratch,” Johnson told me. “My response was, ‘I don’t know another way.’ I mean, I know how to take soup out of a bag and heat it. But I don’t know how to have a thoughtful relationship with my job if that’s what I am doing. A chef should have his hands on the ingredients.”

In order to effect the culture change that was required, he had to remind employees of the past.

“Convenience foods didn’t always exist,” he said. “There was a time when all hospitals cooked from scratch, because there was no such thing as meat lasagna from an aluminum pan. You had no choice.”

Johnson added that foodservice operations’ reliance on convenience foods has created a bit of a disconnect between the cook and the entrée. In explaining this to staff, he used a potato and talked about all the different items that can be made from a potato. “The only thing that resembled a potato when I got here was the white carton of potato pearls where you whisk in the water, and it was this trans-fat nightmare,” he said.

“Getting [staffs’] hands on the ingredients is such a huge part of the success of what we do. If you can have a relationship with items in their raw state, it hurts that much more when the recipe doesn’t work out. You’ve invested all that time.”

Now, I enjoy cooking and making dishes from scratch, but I have to admit that I’ve never looked at ingredients with quite the reverence that Justin Johnson has. And I certainly have bought into the whole notion of convenience foods entirely too much. But I think I’ll have a better appreciation of what I’m doing when I stroll through the grocery store this weekend, and definitely once I get back to the kitchen.

To read more about how Justin Johnson has transformed Watertown’s foodservice program, be sure to read the May issue of FoodService Director.

Keywords: 
menu development

More From FoodService Director

Ideas and Innovation
salad

We’re currently piloting a Salad Bar Happy Hour 
in Cafe 16. Due to Health Department regulations, any self-serve salad bar items must be disposed of after service. The salad bar goes “on sale” for 25 cents an ounce post-lunchtime to help reduce waste as well as offer value to customers.

Menu Development
sauces

Adding an entirely new cuisine to the menu can feel daunting. But what if you could dabble in international flavors simply by introducing a few new condiments? For inspiration, FSD talked to operators who are offering a range of condiments plucked from global regional cuisines.

“Most ethnic cuisines have some sort of sauce or condiment relishes that go with their dishes,” says Roy Sullivan, executive chef with Nutrition & Food Services at UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco. Condiments offered to diners at UCSF Medical include chimichurri (Argentina), curry (India), tzatziki (...

Ideas and Innovation
turnip juice brine

Give leftover brine new life by adding it to vegetables. In an interview with Food52, Stuart Brioza, chef and owner of State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, says that he adds a splash of leftover brine while sauteeing mushrooms to increase their flavor profile. “We like to ferment turnips at the restaurant, and it’s a great way to use that brine—though dill pickle brine would work just as well,” he says.

Menu Development
side dishes

Operators looking to increase sales of side dishes may want to focus on freshness and value. Here’s what attributes consumers say are important when picking sides.

Fresh - 73% Offered at a fair price - 72% Satisfies a craving - 64% Premium ingredients - 56% Natural ingredients - 49% Signature side - 47% Something familiar - 46% Housemade/made from scratch - 44% Something new/unique - 42% Large portion size - 42% Healthfulness - 40% Family-size - 40%

Source: Technomic’s 2017 Starters, Small Plates and Sides Consumer Trend Report , powered by Ignite

FSD Resources