Hospital food has long been the worst of captive audience cuisines. Outpacing even airplane food in its terribleness, a tray full of JELL-O cups and reconstituted chicken broth plopped in front of a patient is an insult added to literal injury.
It didn’t use to be this way. Preparing nourishing food for the sick was once a domestic art and an essential part of caring for the ill. Whole cookbooks were dedicated to this corner of cookery, and even the word “restaurant” refers to the restorative broths prepared for sick patients in 18th-century France.
We’ve fallen a long way — but one hospital is on a mission to provide appetizing food to its patients as they battle and recover from grave illness. Patients and their families at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital aren’t subjected to the same sad boilerplate menus most hospital patients are; instead, good food is part of the treatment plan at St. Jude. And as all their patients are children, they’re not afraid of the whims of kids’ picky appetites.
So Michael Vetro, St. Jude’s executive chef, is bringing home to the hospital by recreating family recipes on-demand. From dal and naan paratha to enchiladas and Korean-style Silkie chicken stew cooked in a clay pot, Vetro never says no when a kid’s got a craving. He’s even invited moms and dads into the hospital’s kitchen to show him how to cook their children’s favorites, he said. It’s an approach with dual benefits: allowing kids to feel comforted at their sickest and parents to feel empowered when their child’s care is largely out of their hands.
There’s an à la carte menu available to them at all times, but Vetro recognizes that when you’re sick, sometimes only the comforts of home will do — and those comforts taste different dependent on where you’re from.
On this episode of Eater’s Digest, he tells hosts Amanda Kludt and Daniel Geneen about his approach to caring through cooking.
Below, a lightly edited transcript of Amanda and Daniel’s interview with Chef Michael Vetro and Gena Kim, St. Jude’s supervisor of patient services.
Amanda: So tell us, why is St. Jude making an effort to make good food part of the treatment process?
Chef Vetro: Well, one, the connotation of hospital food has never been something that is very positive. But two, as restaurants have gotten better, expectations have increased for dining. And so now as the guest comes in, we want to provide them with a more of a restaurant experience versus what you would originally think of as a hospital experience.
Amanda: I notice you call them guests rather than patients.
Chef Vetro: Oh, without a doubt. I think that the hospitality industry is still the hospitality industry, so to call someone a patient is labeling them. But at St. Jude, we serve the entire population. So not only do we have patients and families, but we also have all of the support operations staff. So your plumbers, your mechanics, everybody it takes to make the place run. And then of course all the researchers, doctors, nurses, administration, that all comes along with it. So we truly do have guests. It’s, not just about room service, it’s about every individual that comes through our doors.
Amanda: What from your background working in restaurants, have you brought to this role, working at the hospital?
Chef Vetro: I’ve worked extensively in catering as well as some smaller operations. So I think what I take is from the catering aspect is the level of service, the way you would build a buffet, the expectation of garnishing a plate. I spent a few years in the country club scene and from that you have that top level of customer service. The [mentality of] it’s never say no, it’s how can I help you? How can I make this work? The bottom line is that the hospitality industry is customer service. Secondary is high-quality food served correctly, consistently that looks appetizing and tastes excellent. So customer service, customer service, customer service.
Amanda: When you think about your customer, oftentimes it’s a kid who’s very sick and in treatment and doesn’t want to eat, doesn’t feel like eating. How do you convince them to eat? What are some of the your methods there?
Gena Kim: That’s mostly what I do on a day-to-day basis is taking care of our patients that are in the rooms. I would compare it to a hotel room service where they’re able to place an order based on their menu and their diets and we deliver it to them at their bedside. It’s not like a traditional hospital where everyone’s getting turkey for lunch, and I think that’s been something that’s really unique at St. Jude to help our patients that are very ill. At least they can pick out what they want to eat and it’s not abnormal for them to not find what they want, especially if they’re from different parts of the country, different parts of the world.But if they want something outside of the menu, that’s where I come in and I can go and meet with the families and the patients, and get a recipe from them. And then I take it back to Chef Vetro, and he’s able to either himself or have cooks to prepare this item. And it goes as far as we might have to get special ingredients, we might have to go grocery shopping for this patient. And that’s really how we get our patients to eat.
Amanda: Chef Vetro, can you give us an example of when you’ve taken the recipe from a family and turn it into a meal for a patient?
Chef Vetro: I think one that sticks out to me the most is I had a family, an Indian family. And so she came down and she basically chatted with us and said, “We trust the doctors entirely. But I am the mother and I believe that nutrition is my responsibility to my child. And may I come in and work with you?” And she came together, gave us a list of ingredients we made naan parathas and some dal, and we put together some butter chicken. And she came into the kitchen and actually showed us how to make those items. And so then we could reproduce them on demand. And as Gina mentioned it, they can call down and they can order what they wish.
But another thing that’s important is that we don’t restrict them to just three meals a day. If they have a craving or they feel that they want to eat, they pick up the phone and call us and we have it ready for them. These are children and they say, “My tummy hurts. I don’t feel like this. I want that.” Where one person’s remedy for a cold is not another, somebody may say it’s scrambled eggs and toast. Someone else might say that it is Lipton cup of noodles. Someone else may say that it’s something spicy that’s going to get them over their ailment. So we are basically prepared for anything.
Amanda: How does nutrition play a role when it comes up against like the deliciousness or the desires of the patient? How do you work in their health needs?
Chef Vetro: We want parents to be parents. So throughout their day they’re being told what to do, what they can do and what they can’t. But one of the few things that the parent has control of is what they allow their child to eat. So if it falls within what clinical has said that they can have to eat, they’re basically allowed to have that. Because sometimes if you need that cheeseburger with the extra onions, well then that’s what you need because sometimes they just need calories. That is a big thing. You have to remember chemotherapy and some of the other treatments that they go through affect them. It affects their taste buds. There was a study done by clinical not too long ago, and they used I think a series of five emojis. And over the course of the span of chemotherapy, they tested salt and sour and by the end they needed much more intense flavors than they did in the beginning. And so you have to find that happy medium where sometimes caloric intake is, trumps the need for exact vitamin counts.
Daniel: Have you had that magic moment where you get a kid in and the parents are like, whatever you do, they’re not going to eat and you work a little magic and you just feel fantastic?
Kim: There was a time where a patient wanted enchiladas. That’s all she was talking about. And the mom gave us a recipe and chef was able to, we actually invited the patient down into our kitchen and assembled it together. So room service put up a nice tray together with some desserts, her favorite beverage, we took it to her room. And the best thing is when you go up to pick up a tray and the plates empty. She ate everything.
Amanda: That’s amazing.
Daniel: That’s so cool.
Amanda: And how many patients, how many guests, patients, and staffers do you guys serve?
Chef Vetro: So we’re actually, we just crept over 4,000 a day. And then I think from the room service perspective, I think we’re at ...
Kim: About 70 patients a day.
Chef Vetro: Food services has roughly 100 employees and it takes every single one of them to get it moving. If it wasn’t for our dish room attendance and our room service techs who deliver the food, to the three different levels of cooks that all prepare hundreds of portions every single day with the 4,000 guests that come through that it is not just Gina and I that do it all. It is a small village that takes care of this campus, and every single one of them puts their heart and soul into every dish that they make.
Amanda: Amazing. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and thank you for everything that you do. This is super fascinating.
Chef Vetro: Well thanks again for the opportunity because we love what we do and it’s a lot of fun to share it because I don’t think anybody realizes what’s going on in Memphis, Tennessee. Taking care of all these children and information that’s shared around the world to help others.