Hospital’s new culinary program empowers cooks

Published in Healthcare Spotlight

Employees at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital sharpen their skills under newly launched training program.

By Becky Schilling, Editor

When Timothy Gee arrived at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, in New Brunswick, N.J., earlier this spring, he knew his culinary staff needed some extensive hands-on training to keep up with his plans. The CIA-trained executive chef recently launched a new patient menu, following previous revamps to the hospital’s retail offerings. To bring everyone up to speed, Gee, along with Sous Chef Nick Mercogliano, developed RWJ White Toque Culinarians, a culinary training program that launched two months ago.

The program is modeled after Rex Healthcare’s Black Hat Chefs, the Raleigh, N.C. hospital’s extensive culinary training platform, which removes employees from their everyday jobs for several weeks for training. The RWJ version is three days, “because we’re a larger facility and can’t take someone out for weeks,” Gee says.

Both hospitals’ training programs are broken up into levels, based on the skills learned in that stage. RWJ has three levels: Skills One through Three. Each of the hospital’s 25 cooks will complete Skills One before Gee and Mercogliano, who are the instructors, will start employees on Skills Two. Each month, between two and four employees receive training. The training is done in both a classroom and in a hands-on kitchen setting.

Skills one focuses on meat and fish fabrication. Students spend the morning fabricating the proteins. “The really cool thing is the stuff they do with the foundations of fish and meat works all the way through the rest of everything that they prepare,” Gee says. “They start with the fabrication of chicken. With that chicken they make chicken stock, and with that chicken stock they make a chicken sauce on the final day. I want them to be able to take the techniques from the stocks and move through the chain.”

After fabricating the meat and fish, the students then move on to making chicken stock from scratch, a task Gee says is foreign to many foodservice employees. “They’ve made plenty of things at work with chicken broth, but they’ve never actually made chicken stock. To some of the cooks it’s completely foreign to see the whole process of laying out the bones and doing a mirepoix—and what is a mirepoix even. Going through the whole process with them, you can see their eyes open up.”

After stock making, the students focus on knife skills. Each student is given a skills tray, consisting of potatoes to be cut down to different sizes. “It’s not about them doing it fast the first time,” Gee says. “I’m more focused on them doing it right. I want them to focus on the skills cuts, the finer details. I use a ruler and measure the cuts.”

Day two starts with another skills tray before moving on to what Gee and Mercogliano identified as the six foundational cooking techniques: sautéing, braising, roasting, pan-searing, deep-frying and grilling. “If you can complete those techniques, no matter what product is thrown at a cook, you’ll come out with a consistent product and flavor profile.

“It’s not about them never doing these techniques before,” Gee adds. “We walk them through every single detail. It’s not about them never deep-frying. It’s more about understanding the entire process and understanding things like not overfilling the basket because then the temperature drops in the oil and the product may not get crisp.”

Day two ends with culinary math, when Gee teaches students about costing out an entire menu, from the price of the protein, down to the oil used to sauté that protein. “It’s about understanding that when you peel a carrot for a dish, you’ve lost some of the yield. And you paid for the carrots that you threw out in the trash, so what is the cost of that carrot once it hits the plate compared to when you bought it?”

The last day starts with a focus on safety and sanitation. Each student completes a ServSafe course. Program participants then craft a meal, using the skills they learned previously in the course. They make a dish using the chicken broth from day one and the vegetables they cut during their skills trays. The students also learn how to make fresh pasta, which is included in their dishes.

Gee hopes to have all 25 cooks through level one by next year. He adds that training for the chefs doesn’t stop after the three days. “If we need to make a mayonnaise, sometimes we’ll pull one of the cooks who has gone through Skills One and teach them how to do it,” Gee says. “We’re taking them on a weekly basis and teaching them more.”

The cooks receive a certificate and knife roll upon completion of Skills One.