November 23, 2022 — From the moment you walk into Northern Westchester Hospital’s massive kitchen, you quickly realize that bland, processed food is not on the menu for patients at this Mount Kisco, N.Y., hospital, which is part of Northwell Health, the largest health system in New York state. .
The first indicator is the smell of apple and pear crumbs that begins to spread through the huge space that resembles an industrial kitchen in a five-star resort. Next is the use of real china and crockery and a menu that looks like a good restaurant.
A high-energy food service team led by Andrew Cain, a Michelin-star chef in a toque, is exactly the goal Bruno Tison, Northwell’s vice president of food services and corporate executive chef, set when he joined the expanding hospital system. 5 years ago after working as executive chef at the Plaza Hotel in New York for 30 years and earning a Michelin star at California’s Sonoma Mission Inn.
“When I arrived, we were buying frozen food, heating it up and throwing it away,” Tison says of the food served at Northwell’s 21 hospitals. “We spent as little time, attention and money on food as possible, but food is health. Food is good medicine.”
The drive to apply hospitality practices to food preparation and rethink what is served in the Northwell system began in 2017 when Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell, tasked Sven Gierlinger, his Chief Experience Officer, with finding the right person to reinvent the way which hospital food is obtained, prepared and coated.
At the time, Northwell’s patients’ scores for its food ranged from the ninth percentile to the 50th percentile for quality and taste. With 21 hospitals serving more than 2 million people a year, that’s a lot of bad food.
“Our CEO got a lot of letters, including one where a patient wrote that ‘we wouldn’t serve this food to a dog,'” Tison says. “The last thing a patient needs to worry about is the quality of food when trying to get well.”
When hospital food is so bad, it also puts the burden on the family to bring in outside food to feed the patient, Gierlinger says.
“This adds additional stress that family members shouldn’t have,” he says. “It also takes away from the overall patient experience that we want people to have when they are cared for by our amazing clinical staff.”
In the years since Tison hired 15 new executive chefs, nine Northwell hospitals are now in the 94th percentile or higher, an achievement unmatched by any other health system in the country.
That didn’t affect the system’s bottom line either, even though Tison replaced freezers with refrigerators, removed all fryers, and replaced sources of added sugar with healthier options. In addition, it has since partnered with two confectionery companies, a fair trade coffee roaster, hospitals serving hormone-free meat, and partnerships with several organic farms are planned.
“We spent $500,000 less last year because we don’t throw anything away,” Tison says. “Serving processed, pre-prepared food is actually more expensive than buying a raw product. You just need work and skill to turn it into delicious food, and that’s what our hospitals have been missing.”
Even making coffee has saved costs, to the tune of $250,000 across the organization, Gierlinger says.
“We used to serve the most horrible coffee,” says Gierlinger. “It came frozen in containers, we would heat it up and serve it to the patients, and it tasted like burnt water. That was the standard.”
Northwell leaders have made a commitment to food and nutrition – and that will never be compromised.
“We pay competitive wages and pay more for our executive chefs, but that’s the only investment we’ve made,” Gierlinger says. “The return is much higher.”
In every way possible, Northwell Health’s leadership is poised to change the way food is delivered to patients from this point forward.
“We want to show all the ways in which food is the foundation of good health,” says Gierlinger. “Our mission is to move away from the terrible reputation of hospital food and turn it into fresh, delicious food cooked with love.”
In addition to these improvements to what is served, the team plans to build a teaching facility with an apprenticeship program to train chefs, as well as offer hands-on training for employees and patients, and cooking classes for the community.
For example, in some hospitals, new mothers and malnourished patients are discharged from the hospital with a basket of produce grown in on-site gardens, along with tips on how to eat healthily, all with the goal of educating the community.
Finally, Northwell’s patients have spoken – with their stomachs.
“We see it this way: Through the meals we serve, we have the opportunity to transport patients to another world, a world where they start to feel hungry and actually look forward to meals while they’re recovering,” says Tison. “It’s gotten to the point where patients don’t want to leave — the food here is so good.”