Meet James Watton – Morrison SuperChef
Four Morrison Healthcare Chefs were nominated to represent Compass Group as a “SuperChef”. In this final blog of this blog series, we’re featuring James Watton Regional Executive Chef. Read our other SuperChef stories, Greg Cordova, Andrea Greer and Alisha Rounds.
When Chef James Watton and his father took an eight-day motorcycle tour of Vietnam this summer, the chef had the experience of a lifetime. Each night, they stayed with a family that served them dinner and wine while they experienced the culture of each village. The next day, they rumbled through the countryside, taking in the local scenery until they could eat another unique meal the next night with another family.
“My passion is traveling and experiencing different cultures,” he says. “I wanted to go to Vietnam for a long time, and I was lucky enough to go with my Dad. It was incredibly interesting to meet the people and see how food plays a dynamic role in the culture.” He also learned to cook the local cuisine, and now occasionally makes a lemon grass stuffed sesame seed pork roll at home.
Chef Watton travels far and wide on his vacations; he’s also visited Cambodia, Hong Kong, Egypt and Switzerland. As a result, he brings plenty of worldly knowledge about food to his current position as system executive chef at the University of Virginia Health System. In this position since January 2018, Watton oversees preparation and cooking for all food in the hospital’s café, patient dining, and on and offsite catering.
“Chef Watton truly believes in the Power of Food,” says Paul Easley, a Morrison corporate executive chef. “Under his direction, patient satisfaction has soared because he is serving food that is fresh, nutritious and great tasting. He is helping the patient heal physically and emotionally while they are in the hospital.”
Before joining Morrison as a sous chef at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital in 2012, Watton worked for four years at the Ameristar Casino outside of St. Louis and taught at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago and St. Louis. After four years at Sentara, he was promoted to district chef at Sentara, overseeing 13 different hospitals before moving to UVA last year.
During his seven years at Morrison, patient satisfaction jumped at both hospitals where he’s worked. He says making patients happy usually means doing the basics right, every time.
“We are preparing restaurant-quality food every day, so if we focus on doing it right, people will respond,” he says. “That means hitting all of our marks every day, including temperature, taste, look and presentation. If we do that, our patients will enjoy each meal.”
Of course, Chef Watton visits patients regularly and provides special attention to those in need. A few years ago, after doing his rounds at Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital, he learned from the wife of a patient bravely fighting cancer that it was their 50th wedding anniversary.
Knowing it was unlikely they would get to celebrate their 51st anniversary, chef Watton provided them with a special meal. He ordered a candlelight dinner with a white table cloth and a meal featuring crab cakes, roasted asparagus, butter poached red potatoes and a local white wine. Their daughter provided dessert and joined them for the meal.
How the Team Approach Works
Chef Watton credits his culinary team and a new management ’s new structure for executing a menu plan each day. The team was formerly made up of three sous chefs, each focusing on either retail, catering or patients. Chef Watton reorganized the group so there are two executive and sous chef teams – one for patients and catering, the other for retail.
Chef Watton feels having a two-person team provides more focus on patients and accounts for driving up the scores. “It used to be that all of our chefs had so much responsibility that they were spread too thin. Now, they can focus on the basics, like food temperature and taste, which matters to patients.”
He also credits his kitchen staff for their strong work ethic and flexible approach to the job. “Each day presents a unique set of circumstances that must be overcome. By giving a bit of carte blanche to the staff, it gives each person a different way of dealing with each challenge and helps create an innovative atmosphere.”
A Sustainability Leader
Chef Easley says Watton is a leader in Morrison’s drive to provide sustainable food by providing patients and guests with locally-sourced food whenever possible. For starters, menus allow patients to order locally-sourced Atlantic salmon, Chesapeake Bay blue catfish, stone-ground whole wheat flour and hydroponic lettuce.
Watton gets all of his locally-sourced lettuce and greens from Schuyler Greens, which grows the food in a climate-controlled greenhouse that is free from harmful chemicals and pesticides. Beginning in late August, all of the lettuce served at the hospital will come from Schuyler Greens.
Watton is also committed to an aggressive Stop Food Waste program. Working with Black Bear Composting, a local company, nearly 20 tons of organic waste from the Morrison kitchens at UVA. Beginning this year, Watton gave some of this compost to Schuyler and is working with them to create a local, custom blended salad just for Morrison and UVA.
Whether traveling through Asia or taking the next step in making food more sustainable, Chef Watton’s culinary talent is making Morrison and UVA a better place to enjoy a meal. Let’s hope his travels continue and he brings back even more ideas in the future.