Since arriving in 2015 at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital outside of Chicago, Executive Chef Alisha Rounds has made her mark by creating solutions for people in difficult situations. She knows that nutrition can be delivered in many ways and be part of the healing process. Here’s a great example.
Not long ago, during her normal patient rounds, she visited a woman in the hospital’s cancer center. The woman had beaten cancer once, but the cancer returned. The patient was despondent; she knew couldn’t eat most foods since she had already gone through chemotherapy. When Chef Rounds visited, she hadn’t eaten for three days and had no desire for any food.
“It occurred to me, then and there, that we needed a menu for cancer patients,” she recalls. “In the meantime, we determined that she could drink liquids, so we made her a smoothie consisting of chocolate, and Nutella that wouldn’t irritate the sores in her mouth. We amped it up to include Ensure so she could get some much-needed calories.”
While she had found a stopgap solution, Chef Rounds wanted a long-term answer, too. So, she approached the hospital’s cancer center and designed a menu just for cancer patients.
“We were able to develop an entire menu incorporating Ensure and a lot of ‘stealth’ health items – healthy desserts such as a yogurt-based mousse. We also made items with smaller portions, such as sliders, instead of full sandwiches. And we included fresh side items after to patients that may have lost their appetite from the strong smell of particular foods.”
“Patients need nutrition, but when they are going through such a difficult period, they also need moments of happiness. We worked closely with the nursing staff, knowing people taking various medication will react differently to certain food. People with cancer need nutrition, but they can get an emotional lift from food, something to make them happy during a tough time. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Looking Out for Medical Staff
More recently, Chef Rounds helped solve another problem, this one facing nurses and other medical staff: how to provide these busy professionals with healthy food when they don’t have 30 minutes or more for lunch.
After speaking with several nurses, Chef Rounds found that a large number were looking for a snack or small meal during breaks that last only five or 10 minutes. So, about four months ago, she began offering new items in the café to meet their needs.
“We looked closely at our menu and made sure to offer ‘grab and go’ items—food the nurses could quickly take from any stations that meet our health and wellness standards. Now we make Euro-based deli sandwiches, and many of the specials in the café are designed for speed, and ease of transport.”
Patient Satisfaction Is Key
When the hospital moved to a new building in March 2018, Chef Rounds inherited a new kitchen and retail space. She decided to take advantage of the new venue and roll out a new patient menu to make the transition complete. And as a result of her efforts, patient satisfaction at the hospital has continued to rise.
Chef Rounds’ emphasis on incorporating health and wellness into each meal – as well as her attention to patients’ needs – has had an impact on patient satisfaction at Lake Forest. Good food gives them important moments of joy and happiness. To keep patients happy, she believes in providing them to a diverse menu that provides plenty of choices.
“We’re providing the same quality and diversity of food for patients as we do in our café,” she says. “If we are making house-made ramen bowl for the café, why not provide it to the patients, too?” She continues to provide patients with a lot of stealth health items, such as a mousse out of yogurt, bakery items made with chickpeas, many would think taste like a regular muffin. One of our duties as chefs is to provide nutritious and tasty food to our patients, but also educate them on the ability to eat healthy but not sacrifice flavor.
When she speaks with patients and nurses, she knows even small details will be appreciated.
“Making sure that a patient gets the right condiment can make all the difference in the world to someone looking to enjoy their meal,” she says.
Chef Rounds learned about food and cooking at an early age from her grandmother. Together they would bake a crisp in the summer, a dessert with a crunchy topping of brown sugar, butter and flour, made with strawberries and rhubarb. And as a teenager, she picked up more knowledge about food service working in an Italian restaurant.
After earning her culinary degree from the Illinois Institute of Art – Schaumburg, outside of Chicago, Chef Rounds started as a line cook for Morrison at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, another Chicago suburb. But, the executive chef at Lake Forest saw her potential and offered Alisha a position with his staff at Lake Forest in 2015. She accepted and was quickly promoted to chef manager and sous chef before being named an executive chef last year.
A Chef is a Teacher, Not a Dictator
Morrison Corporate Executive Chef Norbert Bomm says that in addition to her knowledge about food and nutrition, Chef Rounds’ management skills have made her successful. He points to her ability to build a team by identifying potential in others and providing them the right training.
“She has great leadership skills, works exceptionally well under pressure and is a gifted multi-tasker, talents that are absolutely necessary for a successful chef, “says Bomm.
When Chef Rounds assembled her team a few months ago, she was looking for people with one specific trait. “The passion for the food is the most important trait,” she says. “Experience is valuable, but how they feel about the food that they are preparing and their willingness to learn is even more important.”
Her staff includes Chef Jason Kraft and two culinary supervisors, Brandon Jardine and Andres Mireles. Her selection of Jardine as one of her culinary supervisors makes her point.
He arrived for his job interview in full chef uniform and prepared two sauces and chutneys to show his passion for food. He was ready and willing to do a full chef exam, including preparing a menu for the chef. Chef Rounds says his offer to showcase his talents demonstrated his passion for the food that he creates.
For the team to work, Chef Rounds gives them plenty of opportunities to demonstrate their skills. For example, once a decision is made about a menu, she allows her team to create it. “I try to let them have their own projects and even when it comes down to a menu I’ve created, I’ll let them decide on a dish they want to own and coach them through decisions they make on it and help them identify any issues,” she says. “A good chef is more of a teacher, not a dictator. If a person has potential, you want to teach them to harness that passion, not squash it.”