Ryan Conklin oversees culinary operations for Rex Healthcare's room service-style patient dining as well as two retail outlets, two extended care facilities, catering and special events, serving 4,800 meals daily. In March, Conklin won the Triangle competition.

Ryan Conklin, CEC, Executive Chef, Culinary and Nutritional Services, Rex Healthcare, Raleigh, N.C.This event is a regional showdown in the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series, a single-elimination tournament highlighting the best of the state's food, agriculture and culinary talent. To claim top honors in the Triangle Series, Conklin beat Chef Curt Shelvey of Curt's Cucina in Southern Pines. Conklin literally took the cake with his sixth course, a ricotta-toffee cornmeal upside down cake with ricotta semifreddo, Meyer lemon-blueberry compote, ricotta-vanilla bean cannoli cream, pine nut crumble and a balsamic-white peach coulis. Here, though, we ask Conklin about his goals to revolutionize healthcare dining.

FE&S: What is the focus of your foodservice program?

RC: We are a chef-driven culinary program with a major focus on restaurant quality in both food and service. We like to say that we are a hotel-style kitchen that works within a hospital.

FE&S: How is the room service set up?

RC: We have a room service patient line. Mostly all the food is cooked fresh to order by our chefs. We serve over 400 meals during each meal service, so it is an extremely busy line.

FE&S: What about retail?

RC: Our retail venues are set up market-style, with various self-branded concepts that our team has developed over the years. These concepts are switched out often to keep things "Hip, Wow, and Now," as our director Jim McGrody likes to say.

FE&S: What do you try to do differently to raise the bar for quality in healthcare foodservice?

RC: We constantly try new things. Some work, some we have failed at. We look at our operation as a marathon, rather than a sprint. As chefs, our jobs are never complete, and we could always make things better. I would say the most unique characteristic about our team is that we are extremely passionate. That starts with our director and trickles down through management to front line staff. We benchmark ourselves against restaurants, hotels, and the college and university segments rather than against other healthcare facilities. This philosophy has really helped our program blossom over the years.

FE&S: How is healthy eating becoming a major focus in healthcare foodservice?

RC: It's becoming more prevalent on a daily basis. Although some say that it's a trend, I think that it's here to stay. For instance, our organization is currently building a state-of-the-art heart and vascular hospital. What type of message would we be sending to our community if we didn't focus on heart-healthy foods?

Ryan Conkjlin with Junior ChefsChef Conklin carves out time for young culinariansAs leaders in healthcare foodservice, I feel it's important to continue to promote healthy dining in our operations. You can still provide the comfort food that people crave, but it's up to the chefs to recreate these dishes to keep healthy as a focus.

FE&S: What specific dishes or programs have you introduced to encourage healthy eating among patients and staff?

RC: We have a designated area of our café for healthy entrees and side dishes. Customers know that if they dine from this station, they are eating food that is both low in fat and sodium. We were also the first hospital in the Southeast to completely remove deep fryers from our operations. Our chefs love it, and have accepted the challenge of creating unique and healthy dishes to replace the comforting fried foods. Additionally, we promote whole grains on a daily basis. Our salad bar is what I like to call a whole grains "tasting zone," and they are frequently used as a protein substitution in chili, soups and stews. As we have introduced new fresh and healthy items, our retail sales have actually increased.

FE&S: I heard you have an on-site garden?

RC: We do have an on-site culinary garden, which expands year after year. It's not just for show either; we use it daily during the growing season. We produce a variety of herbs, peppers and even heirloom tomatoes that we feature throughout
our menus.

FE&S: How do you stay away from so-called institutional cooking? What's the strategy for making everything fresh and tasty?

RC: First off, you need to batch cook. When you cook everything at one time it can be easier, but the end result is usually low-quality, dried-out food that screams institution. One of the ways to ensure that doesn't happen is by limiting the amount of hot-holding units that you use. Chances are if the space is available the cooks will use that space and precook as much as will fit inside. By removing them, you basically force your team to cook fresh. Also, we limit our steamer usage. A steamer has its purpose for cooking vegetables and reheating items, but it won't enable you to layer flavors. Roasting, grilling, and sautéing using traditional equipment are great ways to prepare foods with a higher depth of flavor. I think way too many healthcare kitchens rely on the steamer to do most of the cooking.

FE&S: That said, what are some of your favorite pieces of equipment in the kitchen and why?

RC: Tilt skillets because of their functionality and versatility. We've also just started using a vertical roaster in our cafe that is a lot of fun, and extremely popular with our customers.

FE&S: How often do you change or update your menu?

RC: Often. Because we are a chef-driven program, we have the luxury to change things out on an as-needed and seasonal basis. We are not in a scenario where we are locked into corporate menus, with set rotations.

FE&S: So seasonal and local is a focus for you. How do you work with regional suppliers?

RC: Using seasonal, local items are very important to us, especially with produce. North Carolina has a true bounty of agriculture that we like to utilize as often as possible. Our produce vendor is located right on-site at the state Farmers Market in Raleigh. This gives us easy access to locally grown items when in season. Last summer, we hosted Tomatopalooza, during which we highlighted locally grown heirloom tomatoes throughout our operation for about two weeks. Patients were even offered an heirloom tomato tasting plate delivered right to their rooms.

FE&S: Has allergen safety and gluten-free cooking become more of a priority, being a healthcare facility?

RC: We have a true learning environment at Rex. Our Black Hat Chef Training Program was a big catalyst for creating this culture. Over time, this has developed into an atmosphere where our cooks learn via Discovery Sessions, during which they are encouraged to try something they've never done before. For more information on our training, check out www.blackhatchefs.com

FE&S: How do you stay on top of food trends to make sure your menu is current?

RC: As a chef you need to be aware of what's going on in the industry. Trade magazines are a great resource for this, as they allow you to stay current. I'm also an active member of both the Association for Healthcare Foodservice and the American Culinary Federation. Both of these organizations provide me with numerous resources and contacts to keep my finger on the pulse as to what's on trend in our industry.

FE&S: What would you say to other healthcare foodservice chefs or operators in terms of this quest to improve the segment's food?

RC: Sometimes opportunity is disguised as hard work. A lot of people want to make healthcare food better, but fall short when it comes to turning what they want into reality. Be relentless about capturing your goals, build a food culture, and slowly but surely you will be on your way to removing that "hospital food" stigma. It starts with the attitude of the chef. It ends with the quality of the food, one plate at a time.