Justin Johnson: "Scratch"-ing the surface

Justin Johnson has revived the foodservice department by transforming the mindset of staff from "factory mentality" to a "thoughtful relationship" with food.

At a Glance

  • 90 beds
  • 850 staff on campus and at surrounding clinics
  • Three retail outlets: Harvest Market, Harvest Café and a kiosk near the emergency room


Justin Johnson has revived the foodservice department at Watertown Regional Medical Center by:

  • Converting patient foodservice from a trayline to a room service program where all foods are made to order
  • Opening a 95-seat restaurant in the hospital lobby, which has received plaudits for food quality
  • Creating an 11,000-square-foot-garden on the hospital grounds that, during the summer, supplies 80% to 85% of the department’s produce needs
  • Transforming the mindset of staff from “factory mentality” to a “thoughtful relationship” with food

Culture change

Creating a new foodservice program at Watertown meant changing the established culture, which Johnson referred to as “factory mentality.”

“You slide a pan into an oven, set the timer, wait for it to go ‘bing,’ set the food out and go home. And all the while your brain is off. You’re not actually cooking, mentally,” he says. “That was the thing we had to change before we ever thought about changing menus or sourcing locally.”

The first step was to rewrite job descriptions and then require the existing foodservice staff to apply for them. People who were referred to as hospitality aides, diet techs and other non-restaurant titles would have to prove their worth as porters and servers, line chefs and market chefs.

“Of course, they weren’t very happy about it,” Johnson says. “They thought we were making them apply for their jobs. I told them, ‘your jobs are gone. We’re giving you an opportunity for a new job in this new place.’” (Both the kitchen and restaurant were being renovated.) However, because there would be nine months of construction before the hospital would be ready for the transformation, Johnson used the time to put interested employees through “culinary school.”

“I took my experience and created a 26-week culinary course,” he says. “If someone wanted a job in a cooking capacity they had to enroll in my ‘school.’”

Johnson wanted his staff to have a relationship with the ingredients that make up the dishes on the menu. “A chef should have his hands on the ingredients,” he suggests.

Classes were held for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday and covered the gamut, from basic cooking techniques to the physiology of food. The final exam was creating a pop-up restaurant, set up at the local country club, where the eight candidates were divided into two teams that served 40 people in a two-hour period.

All but one of the students graduated, and that remaining employee was retained but in a non-cooking job. Johnson has since augmented the kitchen staff with 10 additional chefs.

One of those 10 is Chef de Cuisine Charlie Jilek, who joined the staff about seven months ago after working as executive chef at the University Club at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He says he is enjoying “letting my creativity fly.”

“There are no guidelines. Chef’s only guideline is that you make good food,” Jilek says. “There are some recipes on the menu that we have to follow, but as far as specials go, it’s all on us. He definitely wants to show Watertown that you can have good food in a hospital.”

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