The perception of “healthcare foodservice” has steadily changed thanks to the professionalism, visibility and good humor of many in the ranks. For example, when a couple of restaurant chefs challenged Joe Eidem, CEC, AAC, director of food and nutrition services at 550-bed Washoe Medical Center in Reno, NV, to prepare a dish in a “friendly” competition with them, he quickly agreed.
“Fine,” he told them, attaching conditions about what they would all have to create: “You have to prepare it regular, low-sodium, pediatric and geriatric—and they all have to taste the same.”
They were duly impressed when Eidem also pointed out that there are at least 160 medications that change your taste buds, a further challenge for any hospital-based chef. “Healthcare chefs have come a long way, plus now you have customers who are looking for the same quality food as at a country club and resort,” he points out.
It was just such a dedicated and comprehensive approach to representing healthcare foodservice that caused the American Culinary Federation to make Eidem the first winner of its National Chef Professionalism Award to hail from a healthcare setting. The award is presented annually to the culinarian who exemplifies the highest standards of professionalism through certification, continuing education and training, culinary competitions and community involvement.
Eidem, who has spent the past 17 years at Washoe, oversees the production of 5,000 meals per-day for patients, employees and visitors. The 160-seat Remedees white tablecloth restaurant that he helped establish, as well as a newly renovated physicians lounge serving cooked-to-order meals to more than 160 physicians, are also under his direction. His certifications include dietetic assistant and certified foodservice manager; he is also a certified master chef through the Epicurean World Master Chef Society of Europe.
All of which brings great benefit to the foodservice audience at Washoe. Karen Weisberg, FSD’s senior editor, recently got Eidem to comment on his career, serving a hospital community and other thoughts.
KW: Are you still on TV? Have any plans for national exposure?
Eidem: I’m on once in a while, but I stopped my program, “Joseph’s Table: Recipes and Memories,” four years ago. I love the heritage and food connection. I’m Sicilian—in fact, I’m the president of the local Sons of Italy lodge—but my dad was Norwegian. He became “Sicilian” when he married Mom and then learned to cook from his father in-law.
KW: Is that early Sicilian influence reflected in your cooking today?
Eidem: I do a lot of Sicilian-influenced New Orleans cooking. A lot of Sicilians, like my grandparents, settled in New Orleans. They headed to Los Angeles where I was born but I’ve been back to New Orleans often. I was part of the ACF disaster relief team to help chefs relocate and provide financial aid and I played Santa Claus for them last year wearing a costume my wife had made for me several years ago.
KW: Any embarrassing moments on camera when the cooking demo didn’t go quite according to plan?
Eidem: I was sautéing garlic and I put the hot pan aside under the counter while I went on with other prep. The garlic popped out of the pan onto some plastic that started to burn. I’m putting out the fire while I’m finishing the cooking and figuring I’d be fired. But the station called me the next day—they thought it was great.
Another time, we did chocolate balloons. You blow them up, cover them in chocolate, let them dry, deflate them and you have a beautiful chocolate cup. This time, the balloons blew up since the chocolate was too hot. There was a mess all over the place. The director had taped the whole thing and used it whenever they needed a filler on the air—it really was funny.
KW: What do you consider to be your ‘signature’ dish?
Eidem: Eggplant lasagna. I don’t bread it or fry it. I bake it and even people who hate eggplant love it. It’s just eggplant, ricotta and low-fat mozzarella, plus my spaghetti sauce. My mom developed it—she fried her eggplant—and I tweaked it. Last year my sauce won second place over 20 competitors in the Great Italian Festival at the Eldorado Hotel in Reno. It’s a terrible idea to have such a contest. How can you compete with somebody’s grandmother’s sauce? They could get mean!
KW: Favorite kitchen tools?
Eidem: My knives. I have wonderful German blades—I can’t live without them. Nobody touches my knives! I also have a very special sharpening steel that my uncle’s friend gave me. He was a mess sergeant and carried it on a destroyer during WWII. I was really honored—stuff like that is really special to me.
KW: You’re now 56; where would you hope to be five years from now?
Eidem: My idea of retirement would be more travel and to learn more regional cooking. I’d like to do cooking demos along the way.
KW: Any regrets?
Eidem: Sure—I wish I’d invested better! No, I’ve been blessed with a great family—my wife, three sons, seven grandchildren—and I don’t “have to” go to work every day. I’m privileged to go to work. I give good nutrition to people. Sometimes I’m giving people their last meal, but sometimes I’m serving them on the best day of their life.
It’s really very special feeding people in a medical center. It’s certainly more challenging than feeding the retail customer. What they want to eat is about the only choice patients have in a hospital. Patients are looking for comfort food, not a rack of lamb. They’re looking for good presentation, good service—hot food hot and cold food cold. We have a spoken menu but we’re very flexible; whatever they want—choices are really unlimited.