The Watertown Regional Medical Center is throwing traditional institutional food service away and starting over from scratch.
The hospital recently opened its new on campus restaurant, the Harvest Market.
Executive Chef Justin Johnson said the response from patients, hospital staff and the public has been overwhelmingly positive since the restaurant opened earlier this month.
“I guess anytime you are creating something new, you sort of expect the worst. You plan for everything to kind of go wrong and for everyone to hate what you are doing,” Johnson said. “So I think that we had got ourselves so out psyched out to receive this kind of, I don’t want to say a backlash, but this is very different for this town. So we have just been really pleasantly surprised at how positive the response has been. I think for the most part people have been really open and have embraced a lot of the menu items and ingredients that we use.”
The restaurant, along with the hospital’s 11,000 square foot kitchen garden, are a part of the hospital’s initiative to provide a positive, healthy food environment for patients, employees and community members, according to a release from the hospital.
“Food is powerful medicine,” Dr. Rebecca Gallagher, medical director of WRMC’s Integrative Medicine program, said in the release. “What you eat can truly have an impact when it comes to managing your health. For example, research has shown that bright and colorful vegetables can fight inflammation and reduce the risk of certain cancers.”
Harvest Market is open seven days a week from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and is open both to the people who work at the hospital and to the general public.
The cafe section, which is open from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., serves up a variety of breakfast foods including made from scratch pastries, baked oatmeal and made to order omelets.
The lunch and dinner menu served at the Market section and open from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. is populated with a variety of flatbreads made with handcrafted pizza dough, fresh takes on classic sandwiches, warm soups, crisp salads and cooked before your eyes skillets featuring chicken, salmon and shrimp.
Johnson said the menu will change once every three months or so to bring in new recipes and to use foods that are in season. He added each station features special items that will change about once a week. But customers shouldn’t feel boxed in by what is listed on the menu.
“We have our menu items that we have created, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to order anything on the menu. You can create your own thing. That’s one of the nice things about having the food prepared in front of you,” Johnson said. “You can come up to the salad and sandwich station, look at our eight menu items of the day and say ‘I don’t want any of that. I just want a grilled cheese sandwich with a slice of tomato on it.’ We can do that too. It’s very flexible.”
While Johnson said they are not trying to be a health food restaurant, the goal is to serve healthy food. So those patrons looking for potato chips, soda, deep fried goodies and burgers will have to look elsewhere.
A main component of his healthy food philosophy, Johnson said, is there will never be anything in the food the chefs did not put into the dish. He added they do not use any food that has been frozen, comes in a box or a jar.
“For example today, we have a shredded chicken pita with Tzatziki sauce and a cucumber slaw. It has 500 calories, its not necessarily a health thing. But we are telling people this is what is in this dish. We didn’t buy Tzatziki sauce that came in a jar. We didn’t buy a frozen chicken breast. Everything that is in that dish, we put it there and we can tell you all the stats and stuff on it,” Johnson said. “We approached it as a 70 percent to 30 percent ratio, with 70 percent heart healthy foods that have low salt and low sugar contents and are under say 300 calories or so. The other 30 percent, we fill in some familiar things.”
Johnson had simple advice for patrons who do not recognize Tzatziki sauce or anything else on the menu: just ask.
“First and foremost, I tell people to ask a lot of questions ... We love talking about our ingredients and we love talking about the food and we love explaining to people arugula is this great little green that has a little bitter pepper bite. It goes great when you mix it in with a little bit of romaine and use one our homemade dressings like our garlic and scallion cream and put some nuts and grilled chicken and a little blue cheese on there,” Johnson said. “We love directing people through the food, how we create flavors and why we do it the way we do.”
Johnson said it was important for people to realize the restaurant is open to the public. He added he doesn’t want people to think they have to have some business in the hospital in order to eat at Harvest Market.
“That has been another huge part of our mission, to just be the best restaurant in town. Hospital or no hospital. We want to be a place where you can get some serious food that was made here and not brought in a box,” Johnson said.
In addition to operating the made from scratch restaurant, Johnson and his chefs are working to reinvent what and how patients eat while staying in the hospital.
Johnson said in a typical hospital there is a menu rotation where each day a main entree and an alternate entree are prepared. The food comes in frozen, sits on a steam table and is distributed at set times for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“The trays get assembled, put in carts and they get trucked up to the inpatient floors. Then they get dispersed. Then they go up to the next floor and those meals get dispersed. And the next floor and those meals get dispersed,” Johnson said. “By the time the last meals get served they are 45 minutes to an hour removed from having been put on the plate.”
The first thing they did, Johnson said, was get rid of the steam tables and the set meal times. Everything at the hospital is now made to order with fresh food that is never frozen.
“The really nice thing about that is where in most hospital type settings, if a person’s special diet prevents you from having the main entree or the second entree, you are relegated to the alternative menu, which are ham sandwiches or a bowl of cottage cheese ... Lets say you are a renal patient and you can’t have tomatoes and there are tomatoes in both dishes, you are out of luck,” Johnson said. “For us, because the food isn’t made until it was ordered, we don’t have to have those alteratives. Because if you have that renal patient and they want one of the menu items that has tomatoes in it, we just won’t put them in.”
Johnson said this flexibility also means they can cook any type of food at any time during the day. He said for example, earlier this week a patient ordered French toast, pancakes and eggs at 5:30 p.m.
“I always feel that in a hospital you are essentially punishing the patient for having a special diet. Saying your diet order prevents you from having our main entree, so you are going to get this after thought. We can give everyone the same quality of dining, minus the one or two things they aren’t allowed to have,” Johnson said. “That is extremely unique. That is not something you will see in just about any hospital. I think you would be hard pressed to find something that is on the level of what we are doing in terms of customizability, flexibility, scratch cooking and growing our own food.
“I really feel like we were in the dark ages, we bypassed the present entirely and went right into the future. We have been afforded the ability to do that by the organization. They gave us an incredible kitchen, enabled us to hire some really talented people and without that we couldn’t pull it off.”
Hospital officials are also hoping to use the Harvest Market to promote healthy food choices for people in the community.
In a release from the hospital, Vice President and Chief Experience Officer Tina Crave said obesity rates in Dodge and Jefferson counties are higher than state and national averages. She added heart disease mortality rates in the area are among the worst in the state.
“Harvest Market is an investment in the health of our community,” President and CEO John Kosanovich said in the release. “We believe a hospital shouldn’t just be a place you visit when you’re sick. We want to be a place that inspires people to live well.”
Johnson said he is hoping the restaurant will help people make informed food decisions after they stay in the hospital or just stop by for lunch.
“We can give them some nice fresh, healthy food when they are here. If they are visiting someone they can eat at the restaurant. We also send outstanding food up to the rooms ... Someone may be here for a heart related issue. We feed them some really good healthy food while they are here and then they leave and they stop at the drive through on the way home. And then they are back a week later,” Johnson said.
Starting next year Harvest Market will offer up a variety of cooking classes in its demonstration kitchen.
Johnson said the cooking classes will be led by the chefs and dietitians at the hospital. Some classes will focus on the nuts and bolts of nutritious cooking at home and others will be more fun classes like what are some healthy snacks people can make for their Super Bowl parties and everything in between, Johnson said.
The goal with the classes and the Harvest Market in general, Johnson said, is to demystify scratch cooking and healthy food. He added for someone who is used to buying pre made products from the grocery store, fast food places and chain restaurants, the idea of going home and making your own salad with homemade dressing is pretty intimidating.
“I look at (homemade dressings) and think that’s about the easiest thing you can do and its going to take less time than making Hamburgers Helper. What we want to do is try to show people that these ingredients and techniques and preparations are just words. We want people to get their hands on the food itself and see how easy it is to make their own salad dressing,” Johnson said. “The stuff you buy at the store is all sugar, salt and fat. You can make a really nice, 100 percent better tasting salad dressing with a good quality olive oil, some apple cider vinegar and a little Dijon mustard, some minced onions and fresh herbs.”
People often think, Johnson said, if they are going to try and make anything from scratch at home they will have to get out every pan and pot they own, spend two hours cooking and make a huge mess in the kitchen. But he said, in most cases scratch cooking is actually pretty easy.
Johnson said he and the Harvest Market staff have been given tremendous support from the administration and the hospital to stay the course during the transition from the old food service to the new system. He added they have also been on board with their ultimate goal of providing good, healthy food to hospital customers and the community.
“We have been given a lot of free range to do this food and stick with it and not say ‘Well if we sold soda it would sell.’ We could really make some money if we did taco day. But we aren’t going to do that, its not what we are about,” Johnson said. “It’s really unusual and really unique to be apart of an organization that is honestly, genuinely putting the health of community before its bottom line. You don’t see that too often.”