I think it’s safe to say that most people avoid hospitals like the plague. Unless you have the plague. Then you should definitely go to the hospital.
But some facilities are serving up such good hospital food that locals are choosing to eat their meals there. No sick grandmother to visit. No tests to run. Just to have lunch.
Being a restaurant chef is grueling. They often work long, late hours and weekends. So fine dining chefs, with impressive culinary pedigrees, are taking 9-to-5 jobs at hospitals, creating and executing delicious dishes, so they can spend time with their families.
This includes Swedish Edmonds’ nutrition manager Adam Padzer.
“A couple weeks ago we did a really nice oven baked opah with roasted beet sauce and seasonal fall vegetables,” Padzer said. “We try and do things that get people excited. A lot of time it’s not the healthiest thing, so we’ll do things like smoked ribs. This coming week we’re going to do a classic Chinese takeout: $5 fried rice, sweet and sour chicken. We’re going to have lines down past the elevator. It gets pretty crazy out there.”
Northwest hospital food
Keith Pendleton eats lunch at Swedish Edmonds about three times a week even though he has absolutely no hospital business to attend to.
“My wife was real sick for years,” Pendleton told me over lunch. “So I came in here and started eating and when she passed away I kept [coming]. My friends said, ‘We’ll all come up here and have something to eat.’ So we all started eating here.”
We met on salmon day, the most popular meal of the week. I tried it and it really was delicious. Perfectly cooked fish with a pesto glaze served with homemade, creamy mashed potatoes and super fresh vegetables.
At Jefferson Health Care in Port Townsend, chef and food service director Arran Stark estimates about 35 percent of people eating in the cafeteria come in solely for the food.
“It really catches people off guard, the idea that a hospital would have good food,” Stark said. “The irony of it all is that a hospital should have the best food if you’re devout about the idea of serving your community through wellness.”
Stark was a chef at an award-winning restaurant in Portland before he moved to Port Townsend for his wife’s job.
“My wife, she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, we had a two-year-old and she was pregnant at the time,” Stark said. “She had a mastectomy and then gave birth to our son. Our son got a respiratory infection called RSV. That landed us in Seattle at one of the hospitals, kind of having to live that routine of I’m going to Seattle for three days to sit with my son, then my wife will come and we’ll tag out and she’ll be there for four days and back and forth. The food at the hospital was just grim.”
So when Jefferson Health Care asked Stark to be their chef, he agreed. The hospital agreed that he could completely change their culinary program.
“I walk into the kitchen and say, ‘Well, I can’t do much because it’s not really cooking. It’s pulling items from a box and reheating them and serving them with a dehydrated sauce mix,'” Stark said. “And I said, ‘That’s not the kind of cooking that I do.’ Then the questions started: ‘Well, what would you do?'”
What he did was cook everything from scratch, using local meats and produce as often as possible.
“Crusted cod with a quinoa, Parmesan, and artichoke,” Stark said. “Served up with braised, organic chard and roasted red potatoes. We make beautiful sandwiches, we have a wonderful, local bakery we’re getting our bread from. We’ll get cheese from the local creamery, Mount Townsend Creamery, and make mac and cheese. People are always blown away by that.”
At Jefferson Health Care a meal like this will cost you $6. Unless you’re a senior, then it’s $5.40.
Which is why Port Townsend’s Wally Dalton eats there up to five days a week.
“The lunches are just so wonderful, such a deal,” Dalton said. “A lot of people are over there and it’s a friendly place and it’s a great environment and the food is just top notch.”
Jefferson Healthcare was just voted the third best lunch special in town and Chef Stark voted second best chef in town in the local paper’s Readers Choice Awards.
And as Pendleton’s lunch buddy at Swedish jokes, there’s really no safer place to eat than a hospital.
“We’ve never been admitted to the hospital after eating lunch here,” he said. “It’s a good sign. Yes, it is.”