In a world in which “hospital food” is still commonly code for the bland and inedible, it is almost impossible to describe the revolution that has taken place inside the kitchens of the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
But the lineup of people picking up their packaged Christmas turkey dinners prepared by hospital cafeteria chef Simon Wiseman is a pretty good illustration.
“I admit I’m biased,” CHEO CEO Alex Munter tweeted last week. “But, really, think about this: People are ordering their Christmas dinner from a hospital cafeteria. That is how good our amazing chef is.” He ended the tweet with the hashtag #NotYourGrandmasHospitalFood.
No, it is not.
The turkey dinners — $37 for a dinner for two and $129 for a meal for six to eight people with all the trimmings — were a last-minute idea this year, said Wiseman. Still, he is making 15 turkeys, on top of 200 tourtières, 30 mushroom pies and 30 maple sugar pies that sold out earlier in the holiday season.
“It is kind of a dry-run for now. We decided to offer a nice stress-free holiday for people who want it. It was a success.”
Wiseman is becoming CHEO’s own celebrity chef. The 40-year-old has made a name for himself with daily cafeteria specials that include mushroom duck on wild rice, Fogo Island North Atlantic cod and low-fat butter chicken with cashew cream, to name a few. The made-to-order meals are built mostly around locally sourced (not the cod), organic, fresh ingredients, from wild mushrooms to microgreens. And they are healthy. The creamy sauces are accomplished without the aid of butter or cream.
The food at the hospital’s revamped cafeteria has been drawing crowds and rave reviews. And that is not all. Business is up by 10 per cent since the cafeteria began taking giant steps away from the french-fries-and-steam-table school of hospital cafeteria fare and tempting diners with everything from ramen with locally sourced fresh noodles to seared tuna salad with matcha, lime and coconut sauce.
“The hospital is, first and foremost, the place where you want to eat well and have good quality food — not only nutritious food, but food that you actually want to eat, so it has to be enticing and exciting,” Wiseman said.
Wiseman is part of a team that has been turning hospital food on its ear at CHEO for several years. Another cook in the hospital cafeteria, Samol In, does dim sum and dumplings.
CHEO was the first hospital in the country to model its patient food after hotel room service. Instead of delivering standard meals at set times of day — many of which were left uneaten — patients can order from a menu on demand anytime between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. If that means spaghetti for breakfast and cereal for an evening snack, so be it.
“We want these kids to eat and often they don’t feel like eating when they are in the hospital,” said Munter.
Not only did patients start eating their meals, but satisfaction levels around the food skyrocketed. And that is no mean feat in a world facing pressures from dietary to budgetary, not to mention fighting the dismal reputation of hospital food.
Bernice Wolf, a self-described foodie who has been director of food and marketing services at CHEO for 18 years, said patient satisfaction with food was very low when she took over the position.
Wolf said she thought it would be easy to improve patient satisfaction by simply revamping the menu to include more kid-friendly fare. But even that change only brought satisfaction levels up to 45 per cent.
So she and others started looking at the way hotels did things and built the patient food service around that.
Beginning in 2003, CHEO began its room service program — with food ordered by phone and delivered to the child’s room within 20 minutes by the cook who made it — and patient satisfaction went up to 98 per cent. At the same time, because food wasn’t being wasted, costs went down. The hospital has since added a visitor’s room-service menu, at a cost, which is getting rave reviews from family members.
And then, in 2016 the food revolution hit the hospital’s cafeteria — which serves families, day patients, staff and visitors. The change in cafeteria food was part of a regional initiative to make food served in hospitals healthier. CHEO took that initiative up a notch with innovative menus and ingredients and chef-prepared food.
Wolf’s favourite cafeteria meal? Chicken mushroom pasta, made with wild mushrooms, fresh pasta and no butter or cream. “It is amazing, it is healthy, but decadent.”
The cafeteria fare and the food patients get served in their rooms are two separate streams of the hospital’s food production, but there is some overlap. Some Chef Simon-type food appears on the room service menu, including fish tacos and hoisin beef. Fresh fruit cups are a favourite. And Wiseman is working with patients in the eating disorder program to develop healthy meals. That, he says, might expand.
The hospital also plans to start selling more chef-made products for takeout, after the success of the Christmas season sales, labelled Crafted by CHEO.
Among items that might soon be offered for pick up are meals such as Ramen and stir fry sold in components to be cooked together at home.
This Christmas, the savoury smell of CHEO cafeteria food — turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetables and cranberry sauce — will be wafting through some area homes, a mouth-watering challenge to old notions of hospital food.
“There is zero reason for hospital food to be crappy,” says Munter. “Zero.”