Americas Top Healthcare Chefs Share Thoughts On Comfort Food

Comfort Food. It’s a food phrase used often these days, and working in healthcare, it’s a necessity when it comes to feeding patients who are sick. One thing I’ve learned for sure over the last few years is that you can never forget who your guests are. And our guests are always craving comfort food. Meatloaf, Mac & Cheese, Mashed Potatoes, Baked Chicken, Grits, and Baked Apples are all things we serve daily at Rex, giving some a a ‘taste of home’ while they are here in the hospital. But what does comfort food mean to you? What memories does a particular dish bring back, what kind of food reminds you of your family? What food reminds you of home?

For me, the answer is simple. I’m a breakfast connoisseur. No food is as comforting to me as a couple of over easy cooked eggs, fresh biscuits, and creamy sausage gravy.When I travel back home to New York, the biscuits and gravy aren’t available, so that’s when it switches to an everything bagel with vegetable cream cheese.  A freshly baked New York bagel of course!

 Over Easy Eggs…. this started when I was young. I think it’s because on the weekends my whole family ate breakfast together and my father used to cook me eggs just how I liked them. I miss those days. When I eat over easy eggs now I can instantly be reminded of my early days. A runny egg makes me smile.

Biscuits & Gravy…slightly new to me, as I’ve only enjoyed this treat for just the past six years since moving to the great state of North Carolina. Well actually, in those years, I’ve slightly over-enjoyed it. Every time I eat biscuits and gravy, I get frustrated as to why I hadn’t been exposed to this earlier in my life, I guess it’s a North/South thing?

Everything Bagel with Cream Cheese…Normally, if I’m in New York or New Jersey, I’m enjoying a bagel at sometime within the first day of arrival. I have no control over it, as I find it virtually impossible to pass my favorite bagel shop with out hooking myself up. I’ve been told that this combonation is also the perfect cure for a hangover as well.

Since this topic is so dear to me, I’ve also decided to dig a bit furtherand ask my peers in the industry to weigh in on this topic as well. These chefs in my opinion, are some of healthcare’s top culinary influencers and leaders from around the country.These are the ones I stand with while making forward strides when it come to bringing “New School” Hospital Food to the forefront. Here is what they had to say about comfort food…


John Graziano CDM CFPP-Executive Chef- Valley Hospital, Ridgewood, New Jersey

John G

“It has to be fried calamari. It reminds me of going to the shore in the summer and celebrating at a restaurant with family. If it’s on a menu I’m ordering it. It’s the first thing I order when calling in for a pizza or sitting down at a diner. My wife thinks I’m nuts the amount of times she seen me eating it! It’s an Italian thing”

Shawn Dolan CEC, Executive Chef- UNC Hospitals, Chapel Hill, North Carolina


My favorite type of comfort food is desserts!  I tend to go to my two best friends for this Ben & Jerry.  My  top flavor is Chubby Hubby, but I always enjoy the new varieties as well.  The other dessert that I love is German Chocolate Cake.  Let me be clear though, when it comes to sweets, I do not discriminate! I used to eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s about 3-4 times per week when I was working in New York.  After a marathon shift cooking, one needs a little comforting – I remember the flavor “Festivus” from Seinfeld.  It was gingerbread laden and it was amazing.  It was sold only for about two years in the late 90’s  around Christmas – I have been eagerly awaiting its return ever since.

German Chocolate Cake is something that I remember when I was a younger.  There was a killer bakery in the neighborhood where I grew up that sold it – and it became my favorite thing instantly!”

Aatul Jain, Executive Chef- St. Clare’s Health System, Denville, New Jersey


It’s crispy French fries with a little bit of cheese sauce and after I ‘ve indulged in the cheese sauce, French fries tossed with grated parmesan and truffle oil! For the record, its about #moderate indulgence- can’t over do the fried stuff!

Jim Mcgrody, Foodservice Director and Author of  What We Feed Our Patients- Raleigh, North Carolina


“Lasagna. My mother used to make a very good lasagna. It was about the only thing she made that was good. She used to be a little heavy handed with Thyme and her lasagna always had a distinct flavor because of that. It was not overpowering but it definitely had a presence. To this day Thyme reminds me of my mother and how good her lasagna was.”

Ron Sabatini, Director of Culinary Operations- Don Miller & Associates, Chula Vista, California

Ron Sabatini

“My favorite comfort food is pizza. It can be cheese , pepperoni or gourmet. I grew up on pizza and it makes me smile inside and outside when I make it for others or eat it with friends or family. Pizza has been a staple of south Philadelphia since before WWll but became most popular as WWll ended. Both my grandmothers made and baked their own crust and sauce for pizza. I see pizza as a food that makes people happy when they eat it.”

Tim Gee CEC, Executive Chef, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Tim Gee

“Jersey style thin(emphasis on the word thin) crust pizza all year round. If it’s summer time, I’m getting down with some tomatoes and Proscuitto or some fresh grilled corn with lime butter.

I was born in New Jersey with the sand between my toes and the waves in front of me, so this food brings me right back to my childhood and all is well.

Eric Eisenberg CEC, Corporate Executive Chef, Swedish Health Services, Seattle, Washington

Eric Eisenberg

“I find this one of the hardest questions to answer because it really depends on what part of me needs comforting. As you can all tell by looking at me I comfort myself with food a lot! SO I’m struggling to answer but if I had to lock it down I’d have to say… Authentic Asian soup of almost any variety. Ramen , Wonton , Pho , Hot and Sour, Egg Drop and of course my Bubbie’s Matzo Ball!”

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Hungarian Goulash, Then and Now

Being a chef, many people often ask me if I get my cooking inspiration from my mother. I quickly answer that question by saying… “No not really, but I get my work ethic from her and my father as well.” Growing up in Warwick, New York, they both worked two jobs just to make it happen. As far as dinner time was concerned, the meals were kept rather simple, and easy to prepare. Often we had “breakfast for dinner”, fish sticks, or spaghetti. My mother didn’t have much time to cook, she was always working! Every once in a while, I can remember chicken cutlets, or fried pork cutlets and applesauce that were quite enjoyable. In the colder months, my mother would sporadically make a dish that I remember grimacing at, just when I heard the name. Even if she said it today, I would still cringe.  Hungarian Goulash. Or as my mom use to say, GOOUUUUUUUUUUULASH! I’d never eat it, just the name would scare me away as a kid.
Some 30 years later though, and wearing my big boy pants on a daily basis, I’ve learned to appreciate this dish at a whole new level. Overtime, I’ve developed a true passion for properly braised meats…I know, a typical chef.

Recently, one of my cooks has brought Hungarian Goulash back into my life. With his cooking, he also brings back the memories of my mother’s attempt to recreate this classic. He’s made me a believer in Goulash!
Served about once a month in one of our retail outlets, It’s become a day that I truly get excited about. Every bite I have, I crave another, every bite, I think of being a kid again. I get excited for the opportunity I now have to now make it for my mother, the next time she visits North Carolina.

    Sometimes we spend a lot of time trying to re-invent something new on the culinary scene. Coming up with the next best thing is a challenge for all chefs. Every once in a while though, I encourage you to step back and honor the classics. Focus on building flavors, and flawless execution. The end result will be making people happy patients,  patrons, or guests.

 I’d like to also thank one of my best cooks, Kiron Ollivierre, who quite honestly makes some of the best Hungarian Goulash that I’ve ever had. Thanks for reminding me of home, thanks for reminding me of my Mom!
photo (3) MOM

Chef Kirons Hungarian Goulash Recipe
Cubed Beef Stew Meat 5#
Pork Fat                          1/2 cup
Red Wine                         4 cups
Chopped Garlic              1/2 cup
Diced Onion                    2 each
Diced Celery                   1 cup
Diced Green Pepper      1 cup
Beef Stock                       1/2 Gallon
Hungarian Paprika        1/2 cup
Chopped Fresh Parsley 1/4 cup
Sour Cream

Salt & Pepper to taste


1. Season beef cubes with salt, pepper. Heat the pork fat over medium heat, then add beef and sear on all sides.

2. Add garlic, onions, celery,  peppers, and Paprika Saute for about 3 minutes, string occasionally. Add the red wine, and let it reduce by half.

3. Once the red wine has been reduced, add the beef stock and bring to a boil. Once boiling, adjust the heat and bring it down to a simmer. Cook for about 1 hour at a slow simmer until the beef is fork tender. Make sure this is covered with a lid. Finish with freshly chopped parsley, and adjust seasonings as needed.

4. Garnish each portion with a dollop of sour cream.



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The Journey of a Healthcare Chef

The last ten years of my career have mostly been centered around one common goal, changing the public’s perception of “Hospital Food”. Over this journey, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, won many awards, and met many people whom share the same vision. One thing I know for sure , it’s not an easy path to venture down,  and as a chef in healthcare, there’s a handful of qualities you must have as a chef to carry out your vision.

Passion- This is the first step, and most important I believe. This is the backbone of your work. As a culinary leader in healthcare , your passion should be infectious throughout your team. It also provides the fuel needed to put in the time and effort needed for success, and to constantly be doing the right thing even when nobody else is watching. You can’t fake passion, if your operation has been trying to improve the level of food and service for years and have been unsuccessful, the first thing I’d look at, how passionate is the leader?

Commitment- As the chef, you will need to be “All in.” We all know that there’s certain perks for a chef to be working in healthcare, but really making a difference involves a bit more effort than just going through the daily motions. To truly make a difference, you need to be committed to continually challenging yourself to be better. Examples of this are attending industry trade shows, staying up on trends, new recipe development, competing in culinary competitions, achieving certifications, and having a presence in the local culinary community. Additionally, every new hire you make should be bringing on somebody that can bring you to your goal even sooner. You can’t just fill positions, you need to build a team. This takes commitment.

Follow Through- Do what you say you’ll do. Your team will see right through you if you lack follow through and over a period of time it will be harder to achieve your goals. As a culinary leader of a team on a mission, if you expect your team to follow through and support new initiatives, you must do the same. Set goals that you can realistically meet. Don’t focus on being first, focus on being best.

Visibility- You need to be visible. To your team, and to your organization. They should all know about your desire to improve healthcare food. They can support you greatly if they are aware of your vision. Nurses, cashiers, pot washers, and office personnel should know your teams stance on improving the food quality. They will help get the word out to the patients and community. They will get you the feedback from customers and patients that is crucial to your overall success.

Patience- Contrary to some of your beliefs, you are not a  magician, and you won’t be able to do it all at once. This is a journey, and it doesn’t happen overnight. If you think that putting everyone in a shiny new chef coat is the answer, you are wrong. This is a process which  will take years of hands on training. It contains numerous baby steps, so start small, get the results, and move to the next project.

Stay true to yourself and your goal, and you will start to make a difference. #HospitalFood

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Walking The Walk, Means Talking The Talk

Recently when a colleague was touring our operation,  we briefly discussed the unique verbage used in our hospital kitchen today. We talked about how this wasn’t always the case in the healthcare world. In hospital kitchens, we used to be “institutionalized.”

As I drove home that night,  I kept thinking about that conversation, and as soon as I walked in my house I rushed to the center island of my kitchen to write down my thoughts on paper. The list I came up with is shown below, and to some chefs reading it this may seem pretty basic in regards to kitchen lingo, but not with me. I’m proud that our team uses these phrases. It shows that we have culinarians on site that are passionate about the food they produce. Additionally, they are also onboard with  bringing the special  talents they gained while working in the restaurant & hotel industry, into the transforming kitchens of healthcare. Below is my list.

kitchen lingo

86- The classic code word that lets just about everyone know we are out of that particular menu item. Although the phrase sounds pretty hip, it’s definitely not cool to be used. As a chef, you need to do everything in your power to limit the time that the menu item is “86’d” from your customers.

example: We are 86’ing whole wheat english muffins, but Tara is going to the store to buy some, so it shouldn’t be for too long.

Mise en Place- The classical French culinary term which translates to “put in place.” This is usually your prep work that needs to be done before building a dish, soup, sauce, stew, etc.  This is a critical step in preparing dishes either in a cook-to-order, or bulk preparation setting. Think of it like if you are going to do some painting at home. First you empty out the room, you remove all the pictures off the wall, you get your paint, brushes, ladders, and tape together. Mise en place is not limited to food items. It also includes gathering the correct utensils, and materials necessary to create a smooth flow while building your dish. This is being organized. Preparation

example: “Although I’m off tomorrow, tonight I will set up the mise en place for you so you can make the pot roast in the morning.”

On The Fly- This basically translates to “I need this right away.” When a somebody calls for something on the fly, the expectations are that you move as swiftly as possible to get them what they need.

example: “The seared salmon has been very popular in the cafe today, we are going to need another fifteen portions on the fly!”

Let It Rest Before Slicing- One of my favorites, this is what any respectable culinarian does when they either roast or grill a cut of meat. This could include but is not limited to rib eye steaks, turkey breasts, grilled flank steaks, stuffed pork loins, etc. You need to let the juices inside the meat settle before slicing into it right away. The first clue to find that a meat wasn’t properly rested before slicing is when the cutting board is full of juice. This is no good and should be avoided at all measures.

example: “That turkey breast you cooked looks absolutely delicious, please make sure you let it rest before slicing it.”

Hack –  This is terminology used by chefs to describe other chefs who don’t take their job seriously. Usually, a hack has poor organizational skills, cooks without any sort of passion, and most of the time leaves a mess behind  them. Nowadays, this type of chef is often also refered to as a “Hot Mess.”

example: “Your work station looks nice and clean everyday John. It’s little details like this that remind me how talented you are. You are in no way a hack by any means.”

In the Weeds- A general term used when a cook has a lot on his plate at any one given time. When a cook says “I’m in the weeds,”  it’s usually a sign that they need some help. This is a great time to chip in and give them some support if you can. Just like in nature there are different kinds of weeds. Some are larger than others. A good rule of thumb is that if somebody is in the weeds everyday, they most likely have some organizational issues, and might not be the best fit for the job. If they are in the weeds everyday, an intervention is most definitely needed.

example: “I heard that the grill station was busy last night. Were you able to handle it, or were you in the weeds?”

Golden, Brown, Delicious- Also known as GBD, this is usually the term used to describe  the top of a baked item such as a casserole, potatoes, or fresh baked goods. To get food to this stage, a certain level of love must be involved.

example: “The squash casserole only takes about fifteen minutes to cook. You put it in at 375 degrees, and take it out when its golden brown delicious.”

“All Day”-Frequently said to describe the total amount that you may have prepared or ordered. This doesn’t mean that you have “all day” to produce it, it simply means  that this is  the amount that needs to be done.

example: “How many pecan encrusted chicken breasts do I need all day?”

Got time to Lean,  Often said in the kitchen to somebody who is just waiting to be told to do something. When you are told this by a chef, it’s never a good thing. In a working kitchen, there’s always something that could be cleaned better. If you are told this phrase, take it as a big hint.

example: “Although its slower today than usual, that doesn’t mean you can just stand there and wait for orders to come in. If you got time to lean, you got time to clean.”

Bang  it out- I heard this a lot while working in Ireland, as well as during my time while cooking for large banquets in New York. It simply means, “yes I know this is painful, but we have no other option than to get it done, quickly. Let’s finish this so we can get home at a reasonable time tonight.”

example: “Last night we had many late tickets come in to the main kitchen and the cafe was extremely busy. I pulled the team together and we banged it out.”

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The Facebook Post That Changed My Day


While scrolling through my Facebook news feed today, I read something that truly inspired me, and instantly made me feel good. In turn, I hit the thumbs up sign  just like everyone else does when they read or see a picture they like. But this time, it was different, because it helped me to establish a huge similarity I have with a long-lost friend of mine.  Then, as the time went on today,  I said “Wow…I really have a lot in common with him.” This him is Chef Cameron Gray.

First off, we shared the same grammar school, St. Joseph School in Florida, NY. This was a very small school, and my eighth grade graduation class only had 12 kids. Next, it was  two separate high schools that we both attended at the same time, John S. Burke Catholic Goshen N.Y., and Warwick Valley High School in Warwick, N.Y. Thirdly, we both attended The Culinary Institute of America at the same time, as I can remember seeing him in the kitchens there like it was yesterday. Lastly, we both shared time working in the historic kitchens at The Arden House in Harriman, N.Y., early in our culinary journeys.

Chef Cameron Gray is extremely talented and passionate. In his career, he has successfully led culinary teams throughout some of the finest dining establishments throughout New York’s Hudson Valley region. He built a reputation throughout the local chef network for his sound technique, and simple utilization of pristine quality ingredients. And now like me, he takes his talents  out of his comfort zone, into the world of healthcare cuisine.

Below you will see the simple status update posted by Chef Cameron on Facebook. This really made me smile, as it forced me to reflect on my team, and what we are doing daily to change the reputation of “Hospital Food”.  I’m glad to see another talented colleague find happiness in utilizing his passion to create memorable meals for his residents as well. Cheers Chef!

The following was his post…

My job is not without its challenges. It can be depressing getting attached to residents and losing them, the knowledge that at any point I could be cooking their last meal weighing on me. Frustrating , attempting to make 100 frequently cranky and confused elderly people happy. Sad watching them deteriorate. Most of them alone at this point, having been abandoned by their families and having lost their spouses long ago. This is also a kosher facility, so I can’t cook pork, which I find infuriating.
So today I made them bacon. Bacon from brisket I’d cured last week. I expected that they would appreciate it, but they were overjoyed. Ecstatic. It’s rare to be able to effect so many people in this way. I understand this. So, today I cook happily in God’s waiting room doling out pieces of cured beef with a smile on my face, grateful that I got a chance to do it.”
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Whole Grains Inspiration


As you can see, in my office lays a pile that holds many months of industry magazines. At one time or another, I breezed through them all but I definitely haven’t read them cover-to cover. The reason is that just like many of you, I’m way too busy. Last week though, it was a little different. I found some time to clean out my pile.  But instead, I went to the bottom of the pile and pulled one out. I noticed that it was marked January 2012, when I started to take a gander. About halfway through it,  there was a piece called “No Meat Required”  written by Tara FitzpatrickSome very creative ideas were shared but what caught my eye was a recipe for Vegetarian Meatballs, using Greenwheat Freekeh. The first thing I said (out loud of course)  was… “I bet that taste’s good!” Food Management Mag

Just a few minutes later I was in our dry goods storeroom and walked down the “Whole Grains aisle” as we like to call it. I found a surplus of Charcoal Wheat that was just begging to be cooked right, so into the kitchen I went. It was time to bang out some Vegetarian Meatballs of my own, using Charcoal Wheat. Using the Freekeh recipe as my inspiration,  we made a dish that I was extremely excited about and was eager to promote.

These Vegetarian Meatballs made with Charcoal Wheat were a big hit, as we turned dozens of people onto a new product that they may have been skeptical to try in the past. They were baked and served over whole wheat penne pasta with a simple Marinara sauce and grated Parmesan cheese. If I would have only read this magazine back in January 2012, I may have been able to craft these sooner,  but oh well, better late than never.  A big shout out goes to the Chef’s from Indian Harvest for giving me the inspiration for these meatballs. Because of their inspiration, 43 people in Raleigh, NC tried something completely new for lunch!

Charcoal Wheat

Additionally, I hope that I may have inspired anyone who reads this blog,  to read through the pile on the edge of your desk as well, you might get inspired!

Chef Ryan

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Layers of Flavor, Building a Late Summer BLT

 “Sometimes the best thing a cook can do, is to leave an ingredient alone.”

As I get older in my culinary journey, this phrase starts to  become more important to me everyday. There is a tendency in our world to construct dishes  that are overcomplicated and definitely neglect to highlight the quality of the individual ingredients. Very often, as with making a quality pizza, less can  actually become more! That was our inspiration today as I worked with guest Chef Tessa Nguyen to artfully craft a sandwich that was a little bit salty, smokey, sweet, and crunchy. With the help of two grill cooks, who handled all the orders, today I watched dozens of customers walk up to our grill station and all order the same thing one after another… The Ultimate BLT.

In the spirit of the late North Carolina summer, I really wanted to highlight this sandwich for lunch, and what a success it was. It all started with the bacon, which was house made from fresh pork belly that we cured for a week in a flavorful brine. It was then cold smoked for two hours using applewood chips. I sliced it nice an thick which gave it a nice meaty texture as this was one of the highlights of the sandwich.

Thick BaconAfter that, there was some really sexy (that’s right, I said it) heirloom tomatoes that were hand picked in the morning at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh. Today’s variety were all locally grown, and included Cherokee Purples, Marvel Stripes, and Brandywines. They were absolutely delicious, being both perfectly ripened and juicy. We sliced them rather thick, with the hopes of the tomato juices bursting in your mouth as you take your first bite.

heirloom tomatoes


To top it off,  we used a couple young red leaf lettuce fillets on each sandwich. They were plush and crisp at the same time, still having a rich flavor, which is not something achieved when using Iceberg lettuce.

salad5As we layered these ingredients atop of our lightly toasted  Wheatberry bread, the top piece was brushed with a generous schmear of a lovely lemon basil mayonnaise that Chef Tessa made with basil picked right from our herb garden just five minutes prior. This spread that she made was perfectly seasoned with just a hint of fresh garlic.

What a sandwich, perfect for this time of the year when the tomatoes are at the peak of freshness here in North Carolina. I was happy, and I’m sure the 40 plus people that enjoyed one for lunch in Raleigh today felt just the same.

Five layers of Love,

Chef Ryan

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