Chris Schmidt: Rejuvenating a Program
Ever since he was a child hanging around his grandmother’s kitchen, Chris Schmidt has immersed himself in the culture of food. From his ethnicity—Sicilian and Mexican—to his work experience—the U.S. Army, restaurants and country clubs and, now, a hospital—that diverse background has proved to be a tremendous asset, particularly in his current position as executive chef/foreman cook supervisor at Fort Bliss’s William Beaumont Army Medical Center in Texas. Not only is the area predominately Hispanic but, as Schmidt points out, the Army by nature is diverse. Using the knowledge learned from working in such varied foodservice operations, Schmidt has overhauled the foodservice department in just three years to make it a more inviting atmosphere for patients, staff and the community.
Revamping the program: “When I came to William Beaumont the foodservice was very institutional,” Schmidt says. “The menu was very Army standard. I wanted to make changes to make it more appealing to the customers.”
One of the first changes Schmidt made was to the existing two-week cycle menu. He increased the number of options, focusing on those items that would appeal to the local population. Since Fort Bliss is adjacent to El Paso, a city with a high percentage of Hispanic residents, every other Friday the hospital offers a Mexican-themed menu. “That’s just something you have to have,” Schmidt says about the Friday tradition. “Mexican food is what I grew up on. Whenever I go out of state, I always say, ‘Come on, that’s not Mexican food.’ We offer authentic food. You think that your grandma’s enchiladas were the best you had ever had, and we try to do that here so that people get that comfort feeling.”
Another change to the menu was the addition of a daily rotating station with self-serve concepts such as a potato bar, wing bar and pasta bar. Schmidt also increased the number of specialty sandwiches, wraps and salads. Previously at the grill station, the only options were hamburgers or grilled sandwiches. Now, the menu has been expanded to include specialty items such as French dips, Philly cheesesteaks, tuna melts and ruebens.
Schmidt also changed the names of some menu items to make them more appealing and less institutional sounding. “I said, ‘don’t put asparagus. Put what it is: asparagus with roasted tomatoes,’” he says. “People eat with their eyes and how they hear things. It could be the best thing ever, but if you just call it chicken, they are going to be like, oh, it’s just chicken. If you make it sound mouthwatering, that’s what makes people want it.”
In addition to menu changes, Schmidt has been upgrading software and equipment to prepare for a shift to room service, which he anticipates will occurr in the next couple of years. He has purchased a new pastry and dessert display cabinet to enhance the visual appeal of those items. Schmidt also added a charbroiler to help prepare more nutritional versions of favorites like steaks and chicken dishes. “We are a hospital, so we do offer a lot of the more nutritional items,” he says. “On the grill, we don’t slop butter on everything. We ask them what they would like.” He also creates a special meal for new mothers by chabroiling steaks. “You stay in a hospital and you aren’t in the best mood and you want something to comfort you,” he says. “And one thing that most people feel comfortable with is good food.”
With all the changes Schmidt has made, he has tried to create a restaurant ambiance to break away from an institutional feel. Schmidt’s customers include not only the hospital’s staff and patients, but also community members, people from the nearby VA hospital, veterans, and military personnel and their families. “A lot of people come from El Paso to eat,” Schmidt says. “This one lady told me, ‘I hate coming here,’ and I asked why? And she said, ‘My mother sends me from the east side of town so she can get a rueben every day.’ That’s really cool. She is coming over here just for one item.”