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Hospital chef's sick of institutional food's bad rap

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Jokes abound about hospital food, which ranks as low as airline fare in culinary appeal: overcooked, bland, and processed. It’s ironic that the average American hospital has traditionally served up high-fat, low-nutrient institutional menus that make “healthy hospital food” an oxymoron. But although Jello, fruit cups, toast, and chicken bouillon are still perennial offerings, chefs such as James Boyd at Children’s Hospital Boston are delivering just what the doctor ordered: nutritious, locally-sourced gourmet dishes infused with spices and flavor. “I believe that quality, healthful entrees can play an important role in providing patients with life-sustaining nutrients that get them healthy and out the door,” said Boyd, the hospital’s executive chef. “They don’t want to be in a hospital any longer than they have to be.

Agave glazed pork tenderloin with warm roasted beet and autumn lentil salad, served on top of a fresh local butternut squash coulis, hardly sounds like a typical hospital dish. But this gluten-free dish was prepared by Boyd for a “Hospital Chef Challenge” aimed at to transforming the negative perception of hospital food. Boyd is in the midst of prepping for the next hospital chef cook-off, to be held Oct. 27 at the Seaport Hotel, sponsored by the Massachusetts Health Council. “It surprises many people to learn that hospital chefs are trained at some of the legendary cooking schools around the world,” said Boyd, who was trained at the Culinary Institute of America.

Boyd oversees the dining operation at the 375-bed hospital that provides not just patient dining, but also onsite cafeteria service and catering. Patients can call down their requests, which are all prepared to order, room-serve style, while 2,000-3,000 visitors and employees flow through the grilled and grab-and-go selection that includes a salad bar, deli, and pizza station. Despite trendy menu options such as creamy smoked pepper soup or chicken tandoori on flatbread served with tangy jack cheese and sweet mangoes, an overwhelming favorite with the kids is still mac and cheese. “I try to cook healthy, but I understand if children are sick, they want comfort food that they’re accustomed to eating,” said Boyd.

Q: You’re in the process of revamping the menu. What new direction will it take?
A: I’m trying to make it more kid-friendly. We already have all-time favorites like chicken fingers and pizza, but we want more sophisticated offerings for teens and young adults, like meatball subs, steak tips, or baked cod with topping.

Q: How did you get started as a hospital chef?
A: I started as a dishwasher, scrubbing pots part-time in high school. One night the kitchen was short-staffed and I was asked me to help out on the grill. I got bit by the food bug and kept working my way up the ladder. I’m 45 now, and have a lot of respect for even the dishwashers, who are the backbone of the industry. I’ve been there and I know what the job entails. It’s not fun when you walk in the door after a function of 150 people just wrapped up the night before.

Q: Is it necessary to have a culinary education, or can today’s chef learn on the job?
A: Education is key and gives you a great foundation, but you can’t learn how to sauté from just a book. You can learn something over and over in school but only someone who really knows the tricks can teach you, for example, what a reduction is or the right thickness of cream soup.

Q: You’ll cook at the bedside if a patient requests it. What have you made for kids?
A: Fresh pasta, cupcake decorating, individual pizza pies, the list goes on and on. Sick kids can’t forget they’re in the hospital but I can put a smile on their face for an hour. I made fresh ravioli for one little girl, and shrimp scampi for another. I’ll bring up my cart and a little Bunsen burner and make sure I don’t set off the fire alarms.

Q: In your experience, what is the most common mistake that new chefs are prone to make?
A: It’s really simple, but it seems when a novice chef gets into the rush of things and nerves take over, something always gets burnt.

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