A New York hospital system has a big leader making big changes
November 23, 2022 – From the moment you walk into the huge kitchen at Northern Westchester Hospital, you quickly realize that bland, processed foods aren’t on the patient menu at this Mount Kisco, NY hospital, part of of Northwell Health, New York State’s largest health care system.
The first indication is the smell of apple and pear crumble that begins to waft through the massive space that resembles an industrial kitchen in a five-star resort. Next is the use of real china and utensils and a menu that reads like a fine restaurant.
A high-energy catering team led by Andrew Cain, a Michelin-starred chef in a toque, is the exact goal that Bruno Tison, Northwell’s vice president of food services and corporate executive chef, set in motion when he joined the sprawling hospital system. 5 years ago, after being executive chef at the Plaza Hotel in New York for 30 years and earning a Michelin star at the Sonoma Mission Inn in California.
“When I arrived, we were buying frozen food, reheating it and throwing it away,” Tison says of the food served at Northwell’s 21 hospitals. “We spent as little time, attention and money as possible on food, but food is health. Food is good medicine.
The drive to apply hospitality practices to food preparation and rethink what is served across the Northwell system began in 2017 when Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell, tasked Sven Gierlinger, its Director of experience, to find the right person to reinvent the way hospital food is purchased, prepared and plated.
At the time, Northwell’s patient scores for his foods ranged from the ninth percentile to the 50th percentile in quality and taste. With 21 hospitals serving over 2 million people a year, that’s a lot of bad food.
“Our CEO received many letters, including one in which a patient wrote that ‘we would not serve this food to a dog,'” says Tison. ‘he’s trying to heal.”
When hospital food is so bad, it also forces the family to bring in food from outside to feed the patient, Gierlinger says.
“It adds extra 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 cared for by our amazing clinical staff.”
In the years since Tison hired 15 new executive chiefs, nine Northwell hospitals are now in the 94th percentile or higher, a feat no other health system in the country has achieved.
It also didn’t affect the system’s results, even though Tison replaced freezers with refrigerators, removed all fryers, and replaced sources of added sugar with healthier options. Additionally, he has since partnered with two artisan baking companies, a fair trade coffee roaster, hospitals serve hormone-free meats, and plans are underway to partner with several organic farms.
“We spent $500,000 less last year because we’re not throwing anything away,” says Tison. “Serving processed and pre-made foods actually costs more than buying the raw product. You just need the manpower and skill to make delicious food out of it, and that’s what was missing in our hospitals.
Even making the coffee saved money, to the tune of $250,000 across the organization, Gierlinger says.
“We used to serve the most horrible coffee,” Gierlinger says. “It would arrive frozen in containers and we would heat it up and serve it to patients and it tasted like burnt water. It was the norm. »
For Northwell leaders, a commitment to food and nutrition has been made – and will never be compromised.
“We pay competitive salaries and pay more for our executive chefs, but that’s the only investment we’ve made,” Gierlinger says. “The return is so much bigger.”
Either way, Northwell Health management is set to change the way food is delivered to patients from now on.
“We want to show all the ways food is a foundation for good health,” says Gierlinger. “We’ve made it our mission 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 an education center with an apprenticeship program to train chefs as well as provide hands-on training for employees and patients, and cooking classes for the community.
For example, in some hospitals, new mothers and food-insecure patients are discharged from the hospital with a basket of produce grown in on-site gardens as well as advice on how to eat healthy, all in the purpose of educating the community.
In the end, Northwell patients spoke – with their stomachs.
“We see it this way: through the meals we serve, we have this opportunity to transport patients to another world, a world in which they start to get hungry and look forward to meals while they recover,” Tison says. “It’s gotten to the point where patients don’t want to leave – the food here is so good.”