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Chefs Who Are Bringing Plant-Based Hospital Dining to Life

It would have been hard to believe a few years ago, but plant-based diets have become more than a trend. It is a reality—particularly in hospital dining where food and nutrition services associates are educating patients, caregivers and the community about the benefits of plant-based menus.

Studies have shown there are advantages of a diet rich in plant-based food. According to E15, Compass Group’s internal analytics group, 58% of consumers want to increase their plant-based protein consumption. This increase is mirrored by the health benefits where study participants who consumed plant-based protein diets exhibited: lowered abdominal fat, lower cholesterol, lower blood sugar and lower BMI as compared with study participants consuming a diet of predominantly animal protein.

Morrison Healthcare is at the forefront of plant-based hospital food, pioneering new menus and exploring new flavor profiles. Recently, two of its chefs were honored by Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth through a culinary competition. Morrison Healthcare Chefs Luke Hanna and Joe Kraft created plant-based dishes that rated near the top of entries at the organizations’ Health Care Culinary Contest.

We sat down with Chefs Hanna and Kraft to learn more about what inspires them and the role of plant-based food in hospital dining.

Chef Luke Hanna: Plant-based hospital food is “the new norm”

From his earliest days, Luke Hanna can remember being in the kitchen. He’s always been around a stove, initially learning from his dad and grandmother. Hanna got his first taste of a professional kitchen when he was eight years old, and his dad opened a café. He’s never looked back.

“I started off as a busboy and worked my way up to the kitchen,” Hanna said. “It’s where I always wanted to end up. As a kid, when I asked myself what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, that’s what came to mind.”

Working in various kitchens during his teenage years, he got a good taste of what it takes to run a restaurant. He also learned about numerous flavor profiles by cooking Greek, Italian, and many other styles of food. After spending time in numerous fine dining kitchens, he got his first exposure to hospital dining when a proctor from college recommended he look into healthcare.

Chef Luke Hanna, regional executive chef at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss.
Chef Luke Hanna, regional executive chef at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss.

Hanna has been in healthcare dining for the past eight years, with the last five at Morrison Healthcare. He is currently the regional executive chef at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, Miss. Throughout his career, he has worked to serve delicious food and expand the palates of his diners.

His dish for the culinary competition did just that. Grillades is a traditional stewed beef dish. Hanna replaced beef with mushrooms, making it healthier without sacrificing flavor and texture. Additionally, he played around with his grits recipe to find the right complement for the grillades. The final product won over more than just the judges.

“People really responded to this. Once they tried it, they were blown away,” Hanna said. “I love mushrooms. There’s so much variety, and it matched the flavor profile I wanted for the dish.”

Hanna anticipates seeing more plant-based menu items in the near future. Morrison Healthcare is on the leading edge of this development with plant-based dining for patients and creative retail concepts that encourage guests to try new flavors and ingredients.

“It’s becoming more and more prevalent,” Hanna said. “It’s becoming the new norm, but not every hospital or community has embraced plant-based food. We have an opportunity to change people’s minds and make an impact on their health.”

Now, Hanna is rolling out a new menu at his hospital that delves deeply into cauliflower. It’s something that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago, but he sees it as the right time to make plant-based menus a staple in hospital dining.

Chef Joe Kraft: New flavors, healthier lifestyles with plant-focused menus

Growing up in Chicago, Joe Kraft, CEC, CCA, AAC, always felt at home in the kitchen.

“Everything was built around a meal,” Kraft said. “I’ve always been intrigued by food and, as a result, spent a lot of time in the kitchen with my family.”

Kraft worked his way through high school in the hospitality industry. He started by setting up large events, but he was always intrigued by the action and noise in the kitchen.

“Anything I could do to get in the kitchen. I would volunteer after my shift, so that I could learn from the chefs.”

He was eventually given an opportunity to work full-time in a kitchen. Then he spent the next few years working his way up. While working at a Chicago hotel, Kraft attended community college and received a degree in Restaurant Management.

Presented with a new challenge, he took his first role in healthcare in 2002. He’s stayed with Morrison Healthcare ever since, continuing to grow his kitchen and leadership skills. He currently serves as the regional executive chef at Mayo Clinic.

“There’s a real sense of family at Morrison Healthcare. People care about each other and are focused on the same goal. I love this job because it gives me an increased quality of life while still getting to do what I love. We are taking care of the sick, caregivers, and the entire community. It’s a great feeling.”

For the culinary competition, Chef Kraft created a Mideastern-style vegetable stew.
For the culinary competition, Chef Kraft created a Mideastern-style vegetable stew.

As part of his growth, he has experimented with new flavor profiles learning from other chefs and finding inspiration in new places. His dish for the culinary competition shows this development and the depth of flavors achieved in a plant-focused menu.

“Middle Eastern food has a lot of bold flavors. It can pack in those flavors without adding any fat or sodium.”

And that is important. Kraft is leading the charge at the Mayo Clinic’s Arizona campus to bring more plant-based menu items to patients and staff.

“Education is important in healthcare, so people understand the ‘why’ behind their food. We need to attract our diners to healthy options. I’m seeing more of an awareness of plant-based foods because people are eating at home more often due to the pandemic. By cooking themselves, people are becoming mindful of what they’re eating.”

Kraft is working to capitalize on that notoriety and expand his menu so diners can experience new ways to enjoy a plant-focused diet. It’s important to remember how vital food is to an individual’s health and life in healthcare.

“Healthcare is a stressful job. You’re saving lives. We need to always think about the audience we’re feeding and find ways to support them. By promoting plant-forward menus, we can help our diners make a step toward a healthier lifestyle.”

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