Hospital Cuisine Reaching New Levels

If you’ve ever been to a hospital cafeteria or ate a meal from the hospital’s room service menu, your taste buds were probably less than enthused about it. However the folks running the culinary services over at Rex Healthcare on Lake Boone Trail have taken a different approach – The Black Hat Chefs are making great tasting, chef inspired food using as many locally sourced ingredients as possible.

IMG_1681Jim McGrody, Director of Culinary Services at Rex Healthcare took us for a tour of their kitchen and dining areas so we could see the positive impact of making all of their food in-house can have for their customers. We started by walking through the outdoor seating area located just outside the Courtyard Café which housed the kitchen’s thriving garden. Not only does it make for great scenery but you may see a line cook or two wandering out to clip a few fresh herbs or vegetables for their current recipe. “People come in to the hospital just to eat from our cafeterias!” he shared.

The Difference
There are several major factors that make Rex Healthcare’s culinary services stand out, the major one being the restaurant level quality of both food and service. This starts with passion and strong leadership. Jim, with the help of Executive Chef Ryan Conklin, has created a program that allows their kitchen staff to hone their skills and discover new techniques. These Discovery Sessions are planned out and completely trackable through journals and team meetings with the hopes that the end result will be to implement these ideas/recipes into their operations. You won’t see any deep fryers in this kitchen! Although you may not see how the food got to your plate, the thoughtfulness and education put into making healthy dishes is evident in the flavors you enjoy during your meal.

Another important factor is that customers are treated like guests at a high end hotel. Jim believes that customers and patients deserve to be treated and fed well. In a place where we see a constant variety of emotions it is nice to be cared for and enjoy a meal that was prepared by someone who truly enjoys what they do. How do we know this? Because we toured the kitchen and met the staff. We saw them placing flowers on room service trays, filling actual carafes of coffee and mugs to be delivered to patients instead of rinky-dink plastic cups and lids. We met a prep-cook chopping mounds of vegetables with a smile as she made a salad and enthusiastically described the recipe. Jim showed us the pickling and brining board which listed homemade items in the works including pickles, sauerkraut, capicola ham, green tomato chow chow and turkey pastrami. Hungry yet?

IMG_1687The Cafés
Upon entering the busy Courtyard Café the aromas were more reminiscent of a cozy bistro than a sterile hospital. The daily menu board showcased a variety of delicious affordable options and employees dished out meals with genuine smiles. Customers had a variety of fare to choose from making our selectioms for lunch difficult. Outside the entrance customers can learn about the local products and vendors used in the culinary creations such as collards, kale and sweet potatoes from Burch Farms, lettuce from Green Haven Plant Farm and peanuts from Hampton Farm.

The Korner Café is a smaller location on the second floor of the hospital and is home to several stations. First is Mezza Luna where custom salads are made fresh to order. Next to Mezza Luna is Cosimo’s which provides handmade pizza and a variety of pasta dishes. For those of you in need of a sandwich or dessert fix, head over to Caprese’s Deli. The last stop at Korner Café is the Larry’s Beans gourmet coffee bar. That’s right – even the coffee is locally roasted!

IMG_1690Quality 24 Hour Room Service
We mentioned a few of the details that make the patient dining experience special but there is so much more that goes into it. Culinary services includes a concierge that will monitor patient dining needs on each floor. Equipped with a laptop that directly corresponds to the kitchen, the concierge has the ability to answer patient questions regarding food allergies, ingredients and even order you a snack or beverage between your meals.

As far as the hotel-style room service menu goes, patients with dietary restrictions can feel confident in finding a meal that will satisfy using symbols to verify vegetarian, heart healthy and low sodium choices. Breakfast is served all day starting at 6:45AM and includes everything from hand dipped French Toast or Biscuits and Gravy to a Grilled Peach Parfait with house-made granola. You won’t see a boring ham and cheese sandwich on the lunch and dinner list. Instead you’ll find the Applewood Smoked Ham Chef Crafted Sandwich made with caramelized red onion jam, swiss cheese, leaf lettuce and whole grain mustard on soft Jewish Rye bread. In the mood for a PB&J? Rex Healthcare’s is made with fresh ground roasted peanuts with a touch of honey and triple berry jelly on soft Martins potato bread.

Some entrees you will find on the menu include Lime & Ginger Glazed Salmon, Farm Raised Catfish and Pecan Crusted Chicken with a citrus maple glaze. With over 15 sides to choose from it would be difficult for anyone to decide if they would like Grilled Sweet Plantains, Hummus with Pita Points or Herb Roasted Potatoes. There is a different Chef Special and Soup of the Day every day of the week which offer everything from House Smoked Eastern Carolina Pork BBQ and Cream of Potato with Bacon soup on Monday to Roasted Turkey Breast and Broccoli & Cheddar Soup on Wednesday.

Our Meal
We couldn’t walk through the kitchen and cafés without trying some of the food so we went back to the Courtyard Café and picked up lunch. We chose one of the entrées for the day which was Flank Steak with Chimichurri for $3.99 and selected a side of Mac & Cheese for $1.19 from the list of 8 sides options. Sitting in the outdoor area next the garden we chatted with Jim and dug into our meal. The flank steak was cooked perfectly tender and the chimichurri would give any top restaurant a run for their money. The fresh herbs augmented the steak’s seasoning without being overpowering. Their mac & cheese is simply addicting – no packets of orange powder used here! Only creamy, cheesy deliciousness.

Final Thoughts
This type of innovative thinking and dedication to quality needs to be adopted by more hospitals. While we understand that the purpose of a hospital is to save the lives of patients and provide care for the sick or injured it is also important for the patients (and their loved ones) to feel comfortable and cared for in every aspect of their stay. The folks at Black Hat Chefs have really embraced the concept of top notch food service and they don’t plan on stopping. Jim is always looking at what’s next including a late night offering of bento boxes that patients can pick and choose items to include. There are also plans to open up a Latin food concept complete with vertical broiler to carve up taco’s al pastor. We look forward to seeing what Black Hat Chefs come up with next and will definitely be popping in for meals in the future. 

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