Some of us dust off old-fashioned family recipes as a holiday ritual. But cooking from scratch has become the mantra of a hospital kitchen, halfway between Milwaukee and Madison.
Justin Johnson is Watertown Regional Medical Center Harvest Market's executive chef. He guides a cluster of hospital employees through his pristine kitchen. After the tour, he’ll treat them to lunch. He hopes to convince all 850 staffers that eating in the café will be tasty and healthy.
The group heads toward a couple cooks wearing chef caps. They’re preparing lunch for a patient.
“No two plates that leave here are the same, because everybody has different restrictions and preferences. You may have someone who just wants a bowl of roasted cauliflower, or someone wants the salmon and instead of a startch and two vegetables, they want two vegetables. As long as they’re allowed to have that from their doctor – that’s what we give them,” Johnson says.
Johnson says one beauty of cooking from scratch, is that chefs can omit elements a patient cannot eat – such as salt or dairy. The focus is on fresh. Until cold weather froze them out, Johnson’s team harvested its own vegetables and greens from a huge garden, just beyond the parking lot.
When it comes to protein, Johnson procures and butchers all the meat and fish, then places it in a cooler. You won’t find any in the freezer.
“You’ll notice that there is no walk-in freezer. We don’t have one because we don’t buy frozen food. The only freezer we have is that piece of equipment right behind you there,” Johnson says.
The only item inside the miniature freezer is ice cream – the small amount Johnson purchases for patients with dietary restrictions.
The century-old hospital hired Johnson to upgrade its institutional kitchen. His training was as a “Cordon Bleu” chef.
“They needed somebody, not necessarily with a health care background or an institutional food service background – but with an actual scratch-cooking restaurant background to say this this is how to make this work,” Johnson says.
Johnson brought in a few seasoned chefs.
“We knew that we couldn’t take the existing staff here and just say see you later, we’re going to bring in a bunch of new people. We said, we’re going to create a culinary class to give people the fundamental skills to work with whole fish and to make a soup stock, so that’s what we did. We called it the White Toque Chef School,” Johnson says.
One of the school’s grads is Eric Schuelke. He practically grew up here – washing dishes as a high schooler. This morning, he’s working at the flatbread station, about to pop a personalized pizza into a gleaming oven.
“The night before I roll these out and par-bake them for about 45 seconds in this stone oven that’s about 600 degrees, and it gets them nice and firm for today and then we throw them in for about 3 minutes once we get all the toppings on and they come out perfectly golden brown,” Schuelke says.
Fellow chef Don Ward is handling three hot skillets of vegetables, herbs and protein choices ranging from shrimp to chicken. The meals are for employees testing the hospital food for the first time.
“Today for Barb here, I will be preparing salmon with a sauce to compliment,” Ward says.
Within minutes, Barb Schelinger samples the salmon and delivers her verdict.
“Very good,” Schelinger says.
The food is not the only notable change Executive Chef Justin Johnson has made at the hospital. The soda machine has vanished from the café, so has the cafeteria line. In their place, sit a fireplace and barn wood table.
A few steps away, workers are re-purposing a room. The sign on the door reads, “Harvest Community Kitchen.” Hospital employee Barb Schelinger is intrigued.
“They’ll have cooking classes in there, demonstrations and then also it’ll be a meeting room. So it’s sort of combination private dining room and also community classes,” Schelinger says.
Classes kick off in January. It’s all part of Justin Johnson’s plan to do more than sustain hospital patients and employees.
“We approached it from we’re opening a restaurant and it just happens to be in a hospital and we’re going to provide the best food in town. Our goal is just good food period,” Johnson says.
Sales are already up 25 percent over a year ago.
Johnson won’t be satisfied until the numbers soar and Watertown residents start flocking in – not just to visit a recuperating friend or relative – but to sit down to a good meal or enroll in cooking classes.