Professional Chefs Ramp up Quality of Hospital Meals

Restaurant-quality meals elevate the food experience for patients and visitors.

Justin Johnson, executive chef at Watertown (Wis.)
Regional Medical Center.

For patients in a hospital, food is often the only thing they can control. And for those hospital employees and visitors, the café is often a welcomed spot of respite from the hectic hustle and bustle of the hospitals floors. That's why many hospital foodservice departments are ramping up their culinary offerings to create a comforting environment based around good food.

At UW Health Partners, Watertown (Wis.) Regional Medical Center, patients feast on housemade oyster mushroom bisque with sherry, tortellini and arugula; hanger steak wrap with blue cheese and red currant balsamic vinaigrette and grilled chicken with Brussels sprout leaves, red grapes, chickpeas and orange zest, among other specialties.

Justin Johnson, executive chef at Watertown Regional, refuses to serve processed or packaged foods as part of the hospital’s foodservice offerings. “I cook from scratch, develop interesting dishes and creative foods and source locally because I don’t know another way,” says Johnson. “I have no frame of reference for what convenience food really is.”

Professional chefs working in healthcare foodservice are re-imagining menus, resulting in restaurant-quality fare for patients, staff, and guests. Even better, it often doesn’t add costs to the bottom line.

Johnson is part of a cadre of commercial chefs who left the hospitality industry—in his case a high-end hotel—to run a hospital foodservice department, lured by the stable hours, good benefits and the ability to make a culinary imprint without the headaches of restaurant ownership.

Not all professional chefs are commercial expatriates—some have worked in healthcare foodservice from the get-go—but all have the chops and credentials to work in a commercial operation. They also bring a high level of passion and commitment to their kitchens.

Watertown Regional is heavily invested in revamping its culinary offerings: Johnson is spearheading a $3 million renovation of a new restaurant and kitchen for the hospital. It is set to open this summer.

“We want people to feel like they’re leaving the hospital when they enter the restaurant,” says Johnson. Fresh food is a big part of that concept. To facilitate the farm-to-table program that foodservice employs, Johnson and his team grow their own food in an 11,000-square-foot garden. Produce ranges from the basics—lettuce, tomatoes and peppers—to more unique fare like red okra and lemon cucumbers.

Since Johnson came on board in April 2012, his team has harvested 35 to 40 crops. “The menus are written around what we grow ourselves,” he says.

For patients, Johnson works collaboratively with the hospital's dietitian, adapting recipes to align with health needs while maintaining good flavor.

“It’s important to have a cohesive relationship with the dietitians; it’s the job of the dietitian to make sure the food is healthy and balanced, and the job of the chef to make it taste good,” Johnson.

Transforming the facility: Tim Bauman, director of food and nutrition at Wood County Hospital in Bowling Green, Ohio, knows firsthand the importance of bringing chefs into the kitchen.

He recalls that at a previous stint at a nursing home facility, the professional chef on staff helped ease some of the discomfort families felt when leaving their loved ones. “The chef has the power to transform the facility,” says Bauman.

Having a professional chef on staff is also a marketing tool that helps change public perception of the hospital, and also helps to draw residents to the hospital to work in both acute care and long-term care, notes Bauman.

His management team  includes a professional executive chef and kitchen supervisor, plus three working chefs who have completed culinary training  and hold associate degrees.

“You have to be aware of what’s going on in the commercial world to keep up in the noncommercial one,” says Bauman. “The chefs that create interesting food are the ones that bring value to the table.”

To that end, Wood County Hospital’s menu changes weekly, with entrées rotated for both retail and patients. “Variety is the ultimate satisfier,” says Bauman. Dishes such as chili stew, cherry walnut salad and tequila lime chicken are big successes.

Also, Wood County’s pastry chef nixes pre-made mixes, preferring to bake cookies, cheesecakes and other items from scratch, even creating house-made crème brûlée and crème caramel.

Bauman's team's ability to prepare "five-star quality" food means the hospital can stage CEO-hosted board meetings or physician recruitment dinners without having to hire an outside caterer, which helps to control costs.Patients, too, are benefitting from the chefs' culinary expertise. “If it’s not good enough to serve in the cafeteria, it’s not good enough to serve to the patients,” insists Bauman.

Saving money and increasing quality: For Rocky Galloway, supervisor of dining services at University Hospital in Columbia, Mo., the most important element a professional chef offers in terms of menu development is, “that you know how to prepare things from scratch and can look at the procedures, possibilities and abilities of your staff and develop recipes within those parameters.”

With five trained chefs on staff, Galloway can tweak the recipes of comfort foods and improve them nutritionally for patients, using fresh ingredients and herbs. “Knowing to use them and balance the intensity of flavors and make them pop is something a professional can do,” he says.

A good chef can also save money while developing delicious meals, Galloway adds. “He can take raw items and make the same kinds of foods (as convenience products) and make a version that tastes better.”

Teaching staff how to cook real food, and not just open cans and pouches, is also good for morale, he notes.“Before they were just doing a job. Now they’re performing a craft.”