POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. — Haute cuisine is to hospital food as coq au vin is to mystery meat, right?
Maybe once, but a number of hospitals are breaking the old Jell-O mold, blending feeling better with tasting better as they liven up patient menus with the likes of fresh blood oranges and shrimp scampi.
The movement toward tastier – and often more nutritious – hospital food even has reached the Culinary Institute of America, the well-known school for chefs north of New York City, which is offering a first-of-its-kind course on cooking for health care patients.
Students in the elective class are taking field trips to nearby Vassar Brothers Medical Center and to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan. The idea is to learn first-hand the nuances of tray lines, the challenges of serving people with severe dietary restrictions and what goes into creating higher-end hospital food.
"I want to break this image. I want to embarrass people when they say 'Hospital food? Their food is awful," said Lynne Eddy, who is teaching Food Service Management in Health Care. "Let me show you what good food is in a health care facility."
But this is about more than taste. Food that is both good and nutritious can help patients heal, as well as boost their morale, said Eddy.
It's natural that the same American consumers who scout out fresh basil at the grocer and hormone-free beef at Mexican restaurants want a similar experience when they're hospitalized. And customizing meals for patients and efforts to become more "gastronomically conscious" have helped the health care food service industry grow 4 percent last year, according market researcher Packaged Facts. Growth is expected to continue as executives in the competitive health care industry become more attuned to overall patient satisfaction.
Clearly, there still are hospitals that serve up bland or overcooked food. But a growing number are crafting meals that resemble restaurant fare or are stressing local and organic ingredients. Or both.
Seattle Children's Hospital, for example, has swapped out white breads and pastas for whole wheat and pumped up its vegetable content. Executive chef Walter Bronowitz is introducing an Asian noodle stir fry made with whole-wheat spaghetti, carrots, onions, mushrooms and shelled edamame.
Union Hospital in Elkton, Maryland, buys cage-free eggs, organic produce from local growers and grass-fed beef. Food service manager Holly Emmons said that while buying local and organic can be more labor intensive – everyone in the kitchen pitches in to husk corn during the summer – the extra effort is worth it.
Patients at facilities run by California-based Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation's largest not-for-profit health plans, might eat ancho-citrus marinated loin of pork over an essence of natural jus, paired with cinnamon-stewed apples, barley pilaf and broccoli. Kaiser, which also runs farmer's markets at many of its facilities, puts an emphasis on serving patients fresh fruits and vegetables.
"We certainly started that process of trying to see what's available closer to home, what's seasonal and trying to put those fresher, more local products on the trays," said Dr. Preston Maring, who spearheads many of Kaiser's healthy foods initiatives.
Hospitals are stressing nutritious and sustainable foods as people become more conscious of the role of food in health, patient experience and sustainability, said Michelle Gottlieb of Health Care Without Harm, a coalition of medical professionals and others devoted sustainable health care practices.
"This is just becoming much more mainstream," said Gottlieb, who co-chairs the group's Healthy Food in Healthcare program.
If there is a five-star kitchen in the world of hospital food, it might be at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, where top restaurant veteran chef Pnina Peled has attracted attention for the creative dishes she whips up for young cancer patients.
One 8-year-old boy on a restricted diet after a bone marrow transplant received pasta carbonara with low-fat milk instead of heavy cream, whole-wheat pasta and turkey bacon. Another young girl with a bone marrow transplant who mentioned she liked the chain restaurant Moe's Southwest Grill was fixed up by Peled with sauteed and seasoned black bean dishes with blue chips on the side.
The girl loves it, her parents are grateful and Peled can barely explain how much that means to her as a chef.
"I can't even tell you," Peled said. "It's amazing how fulfilling it is to be able to give them that."
"It's one thing to cook in a restaurant and get excited about everybody coming to your restaurant and loving your food," she said. "But it's another thing to know that these people who have eating challenges, have taste issues, have nausea and sometimes vomiting actually look forward to what I do – look forward to eating here. You don't normally look forward to eating at a hospital."
Eddy's small culinary class visited Peled's operation at Sloan-Kettering in late February, a highlight of the management class that included instruction on menu planning and buying food for health care facilities. Also, it almost certainly is the only course at the culinary institute that requires students to read a book about a terminally ill patient.
Eddy is adamant that her students spend time making observations in hospitals. That brought student Megan Eckhardt recently to Vassar Brothers, where she was briefed by the dietitian, snapped off a series of pictures in the kitchen and received an impromptu knife-skills lesson from executive chef Anthony Fischetti as she sliced peppers for patients' chicken or tofu stir fries that night.
"No, no, no, no," Fischetti said. "I'll show you an easy way to do a pepper."
Fischetti took the knife, placed a fresh pepper on the counter and nimbly sliced off four ready-to-slice pepper cheeks free of seeds.
Fischetti is himself a 1978 graduate of the culinary institute who did his share of late-night New York City restaurant work in his youth before he switched to health care. He likes the work, and the hours. There are differences in serving a party of four versus 220 patients, but Fischetti notes there still is room for fresh-baked desserts and other culinary touches at a hospital.
"A chicken is a chicken," he said. "OK, we're not going to make a perigourdine sauce. But we'll serve some fresh herbs."