Bay Area hospital food goes gourmet


For executive chef Jacques Wilson, searing the meat is just the first step in bringing out the flavor; tweaking the sauce comes next.

"We actually add more onions and garlic, and then we strain it," explains Wilson.

With the nuanced recipes and attention to detail, the state-of-the-art kitchen he's working in could be the heart of a high end restaurant. It's quite different from how it looked when Wilson arrived.

"Quite frankly, when I first came here we were in the old hospital, and I looked around and said, 'Oh, my gosh,'" he remembers.

He came to El Camino Hospital in Mountain View with the mission of re-inventing, and possibly redeeming that infamous cuisine known around the world as "hospital food".

A former American Culinary Federation regional chef of the year, Wilson honed his craft at high end resorts. At the El Camino, he started by stocking the hospital's kitchen with fresh ingredients, leaning heavily on fruits, vegetables and fish. His meat recipes favor turkey and chicken over beef.

"We have a turkey Salisbury steak, which is really good, and lots of flavor. We put mushrooms on it, we use a vegan demi-glace," he says.

But flavor is only one of the challenges facing a hospital chef. Even the most popular recipes often have to be tailored to the clientele, many of whom are not feeling their best.

Dr. Neal Scott says patients recovering in the cardiac unit are given heart healthy meals, and tutored on how their diet could affect their recovery once they're discharged.

"Normally hospital food is very cardiac friendly, a Mediterranean-type diet. That is a diet high in vegetables, high in fruits, whole grains, nuts, olive oil," explains Scott.

The kitchen serves roughly 1,000 meals a day. And while it's difficult to measure the precise benefits, Wilson is still convinced a good meal can often be the best medicine.

"You'll see a lot of comfort food, because when you're sick or when you're stressed, or family members are stressed, comfort foods are what keep people going," says Wilson.

Chef Wilson is also working to spread vegetarian menus beyond the hospital. He holds regular plant-based diet classes for both cardiac and cancer patients.

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