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.

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