Do you hate the food in your hospital cafeteria? You’re not alone. Most hospital meals leave something to be desired, which is why so many nurses get their food elsewhere. But patients have no choice but to eat whatever is being prepared in the cafeteria, and the food can have a significant impact on their physical health.
Northwell Health, the largest health system in New York state, is being praised for transforming its approach to food. It once had some of the lowest food approval rates in the country. The company’s 21 hospitals had a food satisfaction rate of just 9% with many patients describing it as “inedible” or that it “tastes like plastic.”
“We needed chef expertise who cares and could provide healing through the food,” said Sven Gierlinger, Senior Vice President, and Chief Experience Officer of Northwell Health. “The key is to focus not just on great food but healthy food, healthy ingredients.”
So, he hired Bruno Tison, a Michelin star chef who spent 13 years as the executive chef at New York City’s star-studded Plaza Hotel, to update the hospitals’ meals.
But the job ended up being a lot more involved than Tison originally expected.
“I scratched my head and said, ‘Oh my God, where do I start?”” the chef remembers thinking at the time. “Ninety percent of the food was frozen or pre-packaged. They didn’t have a competent chef. The kitchen equipment was falling apart. So, as you can imagine, the food was just terrible. It was scary.”
Despite his reservations, Tison signed on as the company’s Vice President of System Food Services and Corporate Executive Chef in October 2017. It was a big challenge with the potential to change the way the healthcare industry thinks about food.
“I thought, ‘If I want to impact the world, changing food in healthcare would be fantastic,’” he said.
Tison started recruiting well-known chefs who had never worked in a hospital kitchen before. They came in knowing how to prepare custom meals using fresh ingredients. He also worked with the hospitals’ dieticians to come up with a new menu of culturally diverse meals that would appeal to the local patient population, including kosher, Asian, and Latin American dishes.
“It’s about creating a new culture around food and nutrition in healthcare and making sure that culture and that vision goes through the entire system,” Tison explains.
The hospitals now get their ingredients from local farms, including fresh produce. “This is an opportunity to personalize care and provide a moment of enjoyment,” he added.
Tison wants to change the stereotypical impression most people have of hospital food. “I’m not going to say we reinvented [the food plan],” Tison continued. “We recreated it.”
The company’s food satisfaction ratings are now through the roof, currently averaging around 90%. Tison has since reached out to other hospitals looking to transform their cafeteria operations. And Gierlinger says bringing Tison on was well worth the investment.
“It’s almost turned into a responsibility for us,” said Gierlinger. “Patients deserve better food in hospitals wherever they are. It’s been neglected for so long.”
The project has become a passion for Tison, who wants to offer his services beyond the world of fine dining. “We want to transport patients into the world of food — where maybe, for just 15 minutes, when they’re reading their menus, they can forget about their illness. And I think it’s really working.”
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