|Chef Charles Smith|
From his test kitchen in the HHC food services plant in Brooklyn, Executive Chef Charles Smith explores ways to add spice and diversity to the 7 million annual meals served at HHC hospitals and nursing homes. His latest adventure involves bold and pronounced salsas and gravies like pepper cream, lemon dill and cranberry Dijon to add flavor and choice to the menu.
“The week I was experimenting to find just the right sweetener for the apple crisp, I must have gained several pounds,” says Smith, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who oversees the food preparation at the 40,000 square-foot foot central kitchen that provides meals for more than 6,300 patients and nursing home residents daily.
Meeting doctor’s orders for low salt, fat free and no added sugar diets is no easy task for the professionally trained chef whose culinary experience includes feeding Naval cadets and five-star hotel guests, and working in airline catering. Yet his dishes of chicken cacciatore, Jambalaya, pernil (Latin-style roast pork), chicken teriyaki and beef and broccoli stir fry have managed to recreate ethnic flavors that are popular with patients even without the Goya adobo (a staple in Latin cooking), the sear of the wok and the saltiness of soy sauce.
Every new menu item must pass Chef Smith’s taste test, but his are not the only taste buds that must be satisfied. There are food committee members at each HHC nursing home, hospital executives, and patients, of course, who must also approve.
While keeping costs down is always a priority for the cash-strapped public hospital system, the quality and flavors of the food seem to be keeping patients happy. In annual surveys, patients have consistently given satisfactory ratings for flavor, temperature, and texture of the food, as well as the friendliness of the service.
"Our residents take their dining experience very seriously,” said Michael Tartaglia, Executive Director of HHC’s Susan Smith McKinney Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, where white-table cloth dining service was noted as part of its recent 4-star rating by US News Best Nursing Homes report. “For us, it’s much more than providing nourishment; it’s one of the ways we can offer the home-like, culturally-sensitive environment that supports their wellbeing.”
The food service operation at HHC is an extremely complex and organized business model perfected by the international service provider Sodexo Healthcare, the company that has managed the HHC central kitchen since 2005 and supervises more 100 HHC employees who work there. Before then, the plant had been in decay and went underused by the individual hospital food service operations that lacked standard practices and were more expensive to run. HHC estimates it has saved more than $34 million since the centralized cook/chill method was successfully adopted.
It follows the cook/chill method that has been used by other hospital systems, including Kaiser Permanente, Mt. Sinai and St. Barnabas.
In cook/chill preparation, food is cooked in mass quantities and packaged for distribution daily to HHC’s 11 hospitals and four nursing homes across the city. Individual entrees are prepared from scratch, fully cooked, packaged in batches, then quickly chilled (never frozen) at specially designated temperatures, which keeps the food fresh and allows for quick and efficient serving.
Trucks are loaded five nights a week to deliver the next day’s meals already served on individual trays. Those trays go into special carts at each hospital and nursing home, where dietary aides can heat the entrees minutes before serving so the hot food can be served hot and the cold food stays cold. Each healthcare facility complements the meals with fresh bread, fruit and dairy.
“Hurricane Sandy was a big test for us,” said Mike Fuhr, the food service plant General Manager, who also helped prepare thousands of extra meals served to staff during the storm and its aftermath. “But we were ready. No hospital missed a delivery, no patient went without a meal.”
Cooking and delivering 19,000 meals daily is an impressive undertaking. But the staff is most proud of the care and attention that goes into selecting the menu.
“We have to meet the dietary needs of the large number of medically complex patients served by HHC, but also try to match the ethnically diverse culinary demands,” noted Chef Smith.
The menu rotates every 21 days, and offers religious and culturally appropriate Kosher and Halal options and special holiday meals like corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day and ham with pineapple glaze for Easter. Every meal meets the highest nutritional guidelines based on therapeutic diets set by doctors and dieticians to meet the needs of heart disease patients, diabetics, patients recovering from chemotherapy and others.
The food is surprisingly tasty and when sample meals were presented to members of the community no one believed it was the same food served to patients. “They really liked it and thought we made something special just to impress them,” said Fuhr.
But what’s popular in one hospital may not pass the taste test at another.
“The patients at Harlem Hospital go for the curry chicken. At Coney Island, the seasoned baked tilapia is the favorite,” says Chef Smith. “Surprisingly, what’s most on demand is the basic comfort food like meatloaf, mashed potatoes and roasted chicken legs.”
“I think about all the stress folks must have when they end up sick in the hospital. If we keep the food fresh, nutritious and tasty, that’s one less thing they’ll have to worry about,” Chef Smith added.