Traci Anello

The Power in Food

Cooking in Healthcare, the Double Edge Sword

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Being a cook in a healthcare setting is a double edge sword for most chefs. So many of us have traded the upscale hotels and restaurants to experience a real vacation and occasional weekends off. Not to mention the benefits package which in itself feels like an amazing bonus.

There are so many benefits to cooking in a hospital setting. I think the most important is knowing that the food you are cooking actually plays a big part in the healing process. This happens in a couple of ways. The one thing a patient has to look forward to is their meal. In most cases, they get to choose what they want from an “a la carte” menu. They may not be able to choose their medication or their length of stay but they can have control over what they order (based on the diet assigned by their physician). Second, if we prepare their food correctly and with absolute care, the food can aid in the healing process. I’m talking about cooking their vegetables and legumes perfectly. We also make sure they have the best crisp lettuce and vegetables on their salad. These are things we CAN control. You have to want to though. You have to cook every meal like you’re making it for your family. If you wouldn’t eat it, neither should they. It’s all about the patient. We have to do our best to fulfill their requests and make the best meals every time. When it comes to the patient, there’s no room for error.

When I think about how we do meals now, it’s very much like a restaurant. The patient has a menu they get to order from. So they call down to the “Diet office” where trained individuals take their order. Hopefully the system is set up so that it understands the patient’s diet. Most systems are set up this way so that if a patient tries to order something they can’t have, the system will not allow the operator in the diet office to add that option. So the operator is like a waitress in a sense. They take the order and it’s sent to the cooks and room service staff through a ticket very much like a restaurant kitchen uses. The printer prints out every detail to make sure they’re are no mistakes. The cook creates the meal and sends it to an expeditor to check over the ticket and place it on the appropriate cart or truck for the hostess to deliver. The hostess brings the meals to the floors as a waitress would do to a restaurant table. They ask the patient to identify themselves by giving their name and date of birth. It’s essential to deliver the correct tray with so many different diets. Once identified, the hostess places the tray in front of the patient and lifts the lids off of the main plate. If we have all done our jobs correctly up to that point, the patients should be pleasantly surprised and look forward to their meal just like in the restaurant. It’s imperative that the hostess smile and ask the patient if there is anything else they can get them. Ofcourse that has to go through the diet office if they want anything additional but the point here is establish a positive relationship with the patient so they realize we do care about them. Like a restaurant, there’s a waitress, a cook, an expeditor and a hostess. It’s all the same concept. There’s no room for error. The meal must be cooked to perfection and followed through with the same service when delivered.

The other part of cooking in the hospital is for the staff. This is an honor in itself just like the patients. These people work hard. They have to be on their feet most of their shift and time is rarely on their side. When they come into the cafe, they want their meals quick and it’s the least we could do. It’s so important to give them the very best as quickly as possible. A great meal can sustain someone for the remainder of their shift. It can also help in the decision process. These people have to be on their toes and make split decisions at any moment. If we can provide a delicious meal, it can only make someone feel so much better. When you feel better, you make better decisions. If we don’t deliver, then these workers could feel sluggish and incomplete. At my hospital, we have the best fresh produce and local seafood to work with. The hospital provides us with the canvas and the best supplies so it’s not rocket science to create healthy delicious meals for the staff. Now, not every meal is the healthiest but it is fulfilling. We do offer fresh vegetables every meal that are steamed or roasted. I’m very happy to be able to provide homemade desserts. I’m a pastry chef by trade so that fills my soul to make homemade strawberry shortcake and my favorite linzor cookies. Every time it’s like packaging a little hug. I feel it’s an honor each and every time I cook for the staff. They give you their precious time by giving us the opportunity to serve them. The least we can do is give them the absolute best, every time. We do also provide the same meals for visitors. It’s just as important to make sure friends and families of patients have a great tasting meal. They’re providing the support to the patients and like the staff, they need to be able to make decisions at any time or just feel good about the care the patient is getting. A good meal will always aid in an important decision or impression of patient care.

Cooking in the cafe and for the cafe also gives us the opportunity to meet our co-workers. I love these people. I may not know them all by name but I do know what they like to eat. I love our interactions. It’s a nice way to show them how much we care and value what they do everyday. The kitchen is separate from the rest of the hospital so we don’t see what these people are involved with and the trauma they have to deal with. That’s why it’s an honor to have their time. I wish more people saw it this way. It’s truly team work. I’m talking about everyone from the doctors and surgeons to the nurses, admin staff and environmental services. From the maintenance crew to the security staff to our own nutritional co-workers. Every one plays an important role in patient care. The food should always reflect that.

Being a chef in a hospital setting has its benefits. Like I said, It’s a double edge sword. You also have to abide by Human Resources and their protocols which is something most restaurants don’t have. But you do get health insurance, some weekends off which is unheard of in restaurants and also vacation time. The perks definitely out weigh the lack of. Hospitals have incentive programs that are pretty lucrative. The work is year round employment as opposed to seasonal in a tourist community. Hospitals make sure you have all of your up to date shots and immunizations where most restaurants are a tetanus trap. Restaurants give you the opportunity to be very creative and make spectacular entrees. It’s such a give and take. I have to say hospitals offer security, job security. Overall, I prefer working in the hospital. I’m fortunate to be woking with a chef manager that’s an amazing cook. I’ve learned from him and we work great together. That’s a real win. That doesn’t always happen. Most times you have to deal with an ego that is not productive. Do the best you can with that. It’s not easy. I’ve been there and the stress alone with send you back to a seasonal restaurant. This time I’m very fortunate.

If you are a chef or a line cook and you have the opportunity to try a healthcare setting, you owe it to yourself. There’s a lot of give and take but the rewards are worth it. You deserve a weekend off and a paid vacation. I will admit, I do miss working at hotels on the beaches and doing the weekly lobster bakes and catering weddings. That’s a feat in itself. To balance the best of both worlds, find a way to still participate in the catering and special events. We all know someone so the best balance is to live in both worlds. There’s plenty of support out there.

I’m very happy where I am. I love cooking for the patients and the staff. I’ve learned to balance the double edge sword. You can too and I’m happy to help. Feel free to contact me with any questions, comments or critiques.

Author: Traci Anello

Hello and thankyou for visiting my food page. I am a private plantbased certified chef that just happens to be in the process of finishing my first book. I've been in this industry for over 30 years. I'm here to show you how important the healing powers of food can be. From creating the idea to choosing the ingredients and finally the preparation both physically and mentally as well as spiritually.From start to finish, what you put into food is what others will receive. Food, the power of love and healing.

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