April 3, 2006

Hospital Cafeterias Take Creative Approach to Food: Chefs Balance Taste, Healthy Choices, and Comfort Foods

By Kathie Smith, The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

Apr. 2--Retired teacher Thomas Sauppe of Bowling Green eats lunch just about every day at the Wood County Hospital cafeteria. Not only are the prices reasonable, but the food's pretty good, too.

"My favorite is the soups," he said recently over a meal of meat loaf, baked potato, spinach, and the special dessert, flaming pears over ice cream, that Chef Ray Hohman had prepared in the dining room.

Not only do hospital food service departments serve patient meals with a multitude of special diets, they also run cafeterias and cater special events. But designing the menu for a hospital cafeteria is a unique opportunity to showcase culinary creativity. The cafeteria menu is often one part healthy choices, one part popular demand, and one part comfort food. Throw in a little fun and a good time, and the result leads to a successful selection that appeals to most customers.

But "taste and interesting food are primary," says Tim Bauman, director of food and nutrition services for Wood County Hospital in Bowling Green. "You have to sell what a customer puts their money on at the cash register."

Healthy menu items are available. "We have a healthy choice item every day, which a dietitian analyzes to meet American Heart Association guidelines for 30 percent or less calories from fat," he says.

At Flower Hospital in Sylvania, Chef Denny Seibert has Heart Smart specials, usually on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with items such as beef with mushrooms and pearl onions, or vegetable lasagna. The Poor Man's Steak Soup in a bread bowl that was served in March at the Flower Hospital Auxiliary luncheon can turn up as a low-carbohydrate version (minus the bread bowl) in the cafeteria.

At St. Luke's Hospital in Maumee, fresh fruit, low-fat muffins, grilled chicken, and healthy entrees are on the menu, according to Gwen Barksdale, food service manager.

Rob Snoad, food service operations manager at St. Charles Mercy Hospital in Oregon, designs the menus with Chef Joe Hrabrovsky's help. "We always look for a nutritious carry-through to the cafeteria," he says. "We tie in the patient menu. It enables us to experiment and show our creativity. We still offer fried foods, but we offer other alternatives, too. That's what the customer wants."

Many visitors in the surgery waiting area come down to the cafeteria. "They want hamburgers and fries," he says. "Comfort foods are the most important. We've tried upscale items, different soups such as tortilla soup, and Cobb salad. Customers want homestyle cooked meals."

Favorite foods One item that has proved popular is the hummus and tabbouleh served with freshly baked pita bread and fresh vegetables for $3.35. "We sell tons of that," says Mr. Snoad.

At Mercy Memorial Hospital in Monroe, food service is operated by HDS Services of Farmington Hills, Mich. Among the favorite foods, "Tex Mex is popular," says food service director Stephan Yates, who came to the hospital in January. "We make chicken quesadillas from scratch. Plus the fish fry every Friday with cod, french fries, and cole slaw at $5.25 is very popular."

At St. Luke's, eight varieties of homemade cookies, including chocolate chip and peanut butter, are made. "We also make homemade dinner rolls daily," says Gene Morris, food service supervisor. Cinnamon rolls and strudel also are baked. Every Friday, there's either a taco bar, a potato bar, or a chicken wings bar.

Comfort foods are big at Flower Hospital, too. "Our meat loaf, fried chicken wings, and taco bar are popular," says Mr. Seibert. "Clam chowder made from scratch is a big hit. "

Theme days Hospital food service departments prepare food for everything from historical menus to teas, and auxiliary lunches to doctors dinners.

Wood County Hospital chefs make event dishes like flaming pears over ice cream, says Mr. Bauman. "It's one of the favorites." He's planned Cajun food for Mardi Gras and served historically correct recipes such as Presidential Pork Loin Picante made from a White House cookbook. Also popular are the high teas served for nurse recruitment events.

Since last December Mr. Snoad has added theme days in St. Charles' cafeteria, which he calls "monotony breakers." They have had Greek Day, Italian Day, and will celebrate Cinco de Mayo on May 5.

In addition, most hospitals cater events in-house and sometimes off-site for their doctors and auxiliaries.

Monroe's Mercy Memorial Hospital food service served a buffet luncheon for 85 doctors. "We offered variety, including lobster bisque, spring salad, carved beef tenderloin, marinated vegetables, tri-color fettucine, carrots, asparagus, and fresh fruit," says Mr. Yates.

At Flower Hospital's doctors dinner in March, the food service staff prepared entrees of herb roasted sirloin of beef with Jamison (Irish whiskey) au poirvre, crab-stuffed flounder from scratch, and stuffed portobello mushroom over tri-colored peppers with sweet onion. The dinner was served at Lourdes College.

St. Charles Hospital has two rooms that are used for catering: the Oregon Room and the Board Room. Dinners have been catered for community groups such as the Kiwanas and the Oregon Schools. "We can do upscale menus with New York strip steaks, beef or chicken Wellington, and the favorite chicken pecan," says Mr. Snoad.

Popular demand Mr. Bauman is receptive to requests from staff and customers. "I was walking through the cafeteria two days ago and one of the employees said, 'Can we have chicken Caesar salad on the menu?' I said, 'Send me an e-mail or a sticky note.' It will be on the menu, probably three to four weeks out."

But he notes the request or recipe must lend itself to commercial cooking. "We can adapt recipes to quantity cooking," he says. "In the kitchens of the world, most cooks are recipe memorizers - they can make a dish. I've spent years working with my staff. I want to be real nimble and be able to change the menu at a moment's notice and still keep the cost in line.

"Fighting boredom is the No. 1 job for food service managers for the employees and the customers," says the food service director, who has two CIA (Culinary Institute of America) graduate chefs on staff and one chef with a two-year culinary degree from Sullivan College. "I hired highly qualified chefs with standards the same as the CIA. Chefs like to make food. They like to make food that doesn't turn out the same all the time."

When Mr. Yates came to Monroe's hospital, the cafeteria menu was a six-week cycle. "Now I write menus on a weekly basis. Some is fast food, some is healthy-heart entrees like broiled salmon and lemon pepper cod," he says. "I asked the customers, 'What is one of the things you want on the menu?' "

At St. Charles, Mr. Snoad and Chef Hrabrovsky also got menu ideas from customers and employees through a survey. When staff is on a 12-hour shift, "we try to provide comfort foods that they can get in a hurry, but I see a lot of doctors eating salads, soups, and sandwiches. Many don't eat pork. We try to provide vegetable and chicken entrees."

The menu is changed twice a year at St. Luke's, using suggestions from employees, visitors, and doctors.

"We got more requests for healthier choices and more items that were popular in the restaurants, such as the Subway teriayki sandwich," says Gene Morris, St. Luke's food service supervisor. "We can't copy that, but we can make up our own recipe."

Some items don't sell even though they may have been requested. In January and February surveys, only two customers requested sugar- free foods. Plus, "Low-carb items are not that popular anymore," adds Ms. Barksdale.

Contact Kathie Smith at: [email protected] or 419-724-6155.


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