Diagnosis: Delicious! Chefs seek to cure bland hospital menus
January/February 2010 California Country magazine
Story by Tracy Sellers
Photos by Scott Monaco
With Farm Fresh meals, Stanford Hospital is providing healthy eating in the place that's supposed to make you better.
Palo Alto farmer Gary Webb, left, and chef Jesse Cool are hoping to lift patients’ spirits as well as their palates with a new Farm Fresh menu at Stanford Hospital and Clinics.
A garden-fresh salad with ruby red tomatoes is set before you. Alongside is a bowl of chicken noodle soup—poached vegetables, tiny noodles and chunks of tender organic chicken crowded together in a rich, flavorful broth. Made from scratch and simmered for hours in the kitchen, the soup is just like Mom's, with nurturing care in every spoonful. A wedge of hearty multigrain bread accompanies the meal. And to top it all off, a baked stuffed apple with plump raisins and a velvety honey-yogurt sauce.
Despite the mouthwatering description, this isn't an offering from a trendy new restaurant, but rather a sampling from a hospital menu. The days of Jell-O salads, reconstituted potatoes, frozen peas and canned fruit cocktail being the only options at the hospital are long gone—especially at Stanford Hospital and Clinics in Palo Alto.
“When you say the words ‘hospital food,' people laugh because it's usually so bad,” said Stanford Executive Chef Beni Velazquez.
But it's smiles, not laughs, that Velazquez and others at Stanford Hospital are generating these days through a new Farm Fresh project designed to improve the in-patient experience one meal at a time. Launched in a pilot phase last summer, the program brings organic, locally grown food to patients along with a focus on nutrition education designed to be used beyond the bedside.
The philosophy behind the program is simple: By feeding patients healthy food and educating them while they are recovering from illness, they will be better prepared to lead healthy lives when they leave the hospital. Stanford administrators believe Farm Fresh is the first of its kind in the nation.
“Earlier in my career, I would never have thought of doing hospital food,” Velazquez said. “But we have a unique vision here and this really isn't your ordinary hospital food anyway.”
Chefs Beni Velazquez and Jesse Cool formed an instant bond over their shared belief in a menu of simple comfort food for Stanford patients.
Velazquez isn't your ordinary hospital chef, either. He joined Stanford Hospital in 2008 and is a certified chef instructor with the Culinary Institute of America, a former chef at the Ritz-Carlton and also previous owner of restaurants in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Now serving up nearly 1,000 meals a day to patients 365 days a year, he calls on his prior restaurant experience to bring a new way of thinking to a well-established institution.
“When I first got here, they thought I was crazy for trying to change the way we did things in the kitchen,” said Velazquez. “I said, ‘I don't care that you've been doing it the same way for 30 years. I want to change it and do food in a better way!'”
Velazquez worked with fellow chef Jesse Cool to create the new menu. Cool is nationally recognized for her early and dedicated advocacy of organic food, grown locally with sustainable farming techniques. She is also a cookbook author and operates several restaurants in the Bay Area, including the Cool Café at the Stanford University Cantor Arts Center.
Although Velazquez's experience was with larger-scale food-service operations and Cool was much more comfortable in small café operations, the two chefs bonded immediately and seemed to “speak the same language,” said Velazquez.
“We kept telling each other that there should be healthy eating in a place that's supposed to make you better, not worse,” said Cool.
So did Dr. Robert Robbins. The chair of Stanford's Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery was an early enthusiast for development of the new menu and was inspired by meals he had at Cool's on-site restaurant.
“My wife and I would always come into the Cool Café here at Stanford and I would comment, ‘I wish we could serve this food to our patients' and Jesse would always answer back, ‘Well, why couldn't we?'” said Robbins. “From there the idea just kind of snowballed.”
Cool's creative approach to developing new menu options at Stanford Hospital reflects her basic principle about cooking: Keep it simple.
Soup is the centerpiece of the new menu, with seven seasonal options and chicken noodle with vegetables offered each week. The meals are options for patients, with no added costs associated with ordering them. Each meal includes a farm-fresh soup broth with vegetables. Patients choose between organic meatballs, free-range chicken or smoked tofu, with a slice of artisan bread, a small salad and seasonal fruit or a baked apple for dessert, and organic milk and tea as beverage choices.
The simplistic nature of the menu items provides an added benefit, according to the doctors at Stanford.
“Once people are in the hospital, especially when they have major surgeries, their digestive systems do not work quite as well,” Robbins said. “This kind of food is perfect.”
Believing that hospitals should pay more attention to nutrition because it plays a major role in healing, Dr. Robert Robbins worked with chef Jesse Cool to bring farm-fresh cuisine to Stanford.
The ingredients for Farm Fresh meals come primarily from growers and producers within a 200-mile radius of the hospital, based on seasonal availability. Among the items featured will be vegetables from local farms, olive oil from the Napa Valley, strawberries from Watsonville, organic dairy products from Petaluma, pasture-raised chickens and grass-fed range beef from Marin and Sonoma counties, and whole-grain bread from a San Francisco bakery.
Webb Ranch is one local farm that chef Cool has worked closely with for 20 years now. The Webb family's farming tradition began in 1922 when the family leased 300 acres from Stanford University. Today, at that same location, Gary Webb runs the operation along with 17 other family members who live and work on the rich farmland.
Webb Ranch is actually the last working farm on the Bay Area peninsula and one that Cool and other local chefs have become acquainted with not only because of the wide variety of produce they offer throughout the year, but also because of their long history in the area.
“Working with local farmers is my favorite part of this job,” said Cool. “I really believe they are the backbone and driving force in keeping any community alive and prosperous.”
Webb agreed, saying, “What they are doing over at Stanford is absolutely amazing. I never thought I would see something like that here in my own backyard.”
The cornucopia of produce Webb Ranch offers comes in handy for Cool and Velazquez, who create many of the recipes with presentation and visual appeal in mind.
“The carrot ginger soup is a brilliant gold. The baked apple has a caramel-like burnish. The roasted tomato soup has a rich, velvety look and taste to it,” said Cool. “Hospitals tend to be bland, scary places and we wanted the food on the plate to be bright, vibrant and alive.”
The health benefits of the new menu options are obvious, Robbins added.
“Comfort food like chicken noodle soup can instantly lift your spirits and that is another way to promote healing,” the doctor said. “Not only are we feeding people well when they are in our care, but we are also encouraging them to go home and think of cooking differently. That's an important message in this program.”
Stanford and Cool are making the new recipes she developed for the hospital's patients available online at www.stanfordhospital.org/farmfresh. Patients can also take the recipes home by tearing off a section of the menus they receive while in the hospital, underscoring the message that whole foods, prepared at home, are an important contributor to well-being.
Patients like Leslie Gary are able to choose what kind of soup base they want and can even take part in the preparation by pouring a fresh broth over it once it arrives bedside.
Leslie Gary, who recently had hip replacement surgery at Stanford, gave the new meals a resounding thumbs up.
“The best chicken noodle soup I've ever had—at a hospital or not,” he said.
“We are just trying to take the connection between food and well-being to a whole new level,” said Cool. “And if the patients like it, then I definitely feel like we've succeeded.”
Staff is now serving nearly 350 Farm Fresh trays per week to patients at Stanford, which ironically enough, is often referred to as “The Farm” because of its origin as a stock farm for thoroughbreds owned by its founder, former California Gov. Leland Stanford. Nearly a century ago, visitors to the Stanford farm could see acres of carrots, corn, barley, alfalfa, orchards and vineyards. The new Farm Fresh idea is evoking memories of those days long past.
“In a way, we're getting back to our roots,” Velazquez said. “The whole thing feels like we're coming full circle here and it just makes sense.”
Tracy Sellers is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or firstname.lastname@example.org.