A Healing Menu

You don't expect to be fed well in a hospital. And you certainly don't expect your meals to help make you well. But in an innovative partnership between chef and restaurateur, Matt Prentice and the new Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital are changing that.

Chefs are trained to cook to please, says Prentice, CEO of Matt Prentice Restaurant Group. Under his direction, the chefs at Ford West Bloomfield are being trained to heal and please. With the hospital's opening earlier this month, Prentice has launched a restaurant like none in his career. Two years of study and training have led him to create over 3,000 recipes that are "99 percent" organic. Organic food retains more vitamins and minerals than other produce, due to its growing methods, Prentice claims.

Before his involvement with the Henry Ford Health System, about the only thing Prentice knew about the healing properties of food was through the cultural legend of "Jewish penicillin" - chicken soup. Appropriately, his first new recipe was "chicken soup on steroids," which not only is comforting, but, he believes, contributes to the healing process. His chicken and vegetable consommé --elaborately prepared broth, includes maitake mushrooms, believed to be an anti-icarcinogen, and astragulus, a root vegetable which is said to boost the immune system.

While unproven scientifically, Prentice says alternative medicine literature and personal experience have convinced him that that the broth enhances recovery time. More importantly, it tastes good. The broth, he says, will be used as the base for soups and sauces, as well as for recipes for people on a liquid diet.

"When you're recovering from surgery or you're undergoing treatment that can be devastating to the body, you need as much energy as you can possibly get," he says. Prentice, who consulted with the hospital's dieticians while creating his recipes, says "healing" comes in when a recipe incorporates vegetables and herbs that provide excess minerals and vitamins – "intensely." For example, Prentice integrates broccoli sprouts, which have a high concentration of the antioxidant sulphoraphane, into sandwiches and salads. Sulphoraphane is known to prevent and fight cancer, plus, Prentice adds, broccoli sprouts are delicious.

"There's been a lot written on it, but no one has tested this stuff," he admits. "I don't know if the properties that I've read about really work or not. There isn't true scientific backing for them." Prentice has recommended that the hospital study the potential benefits of a healing cuisine. He believes that it not only enhances recovery, but may result in reducing the length of stay by as much as a day. In a hospital economy, that means considerable cost savings.

Prentice is convinced that through efficient use of quality ingredients, leveraging profit from Henry's (a public food court at the hospital) and through a cook apprenticeship program, he will achieve economies of scale that will make the food service affordable over the long term. Despite the notion that fresh organic, healthy cooking is costly, Prentice contends that, properly proportioned and efficiently prepared, it's actually less expensive than prepared foods. For example, a bowl of fresh cabbage borscht costs only nine cents to make.

Ford West Bloomfield eventually will prepare as many as 1,600 meals a day, including room service. To ensure that the dietary needs of Muslim patients are met, halal chicken is the norm for the hospital. Also, through an arrangement with the nearby Jewish Community Center, kosher foods are provided upon request.

Some hospitals provide organic meals, but there don't appear to be any that claim such an exclusive dedication to organic recipes. Ford West Bloomfield is working with large organic farms such as Chef's Garden, in Ohio, and Earthbound, in California, to supplement Michigan organic fruits and vegetables. Plans are in the works to establish two greenhouses on the hospital campus, one for learning and the other for production.

Fresh organic and healing cuisine requires a radical change in how health care chefs approach their work, Prentice explains. His first interview with a seasoned hospital food service manager revealed what Prentice characterizes as the "contamination" of hospital food operations. When asked about his priorities, the job candidate indicated that pleasing hospital management and dieticians and producing the lowest cost on daily food and food service were his top concerns. Prentice stopped the interview immediately. "What about your patients?" he asked. "'What about your patients' welfare, be it through safety, cleanliness or quality of ingredients that would make them healthier?'" He says that "100 percent of the [dozens of] hospital [chefs] I interviewed were contaminated."

"When it pertains to food, hospitals have been doing it so badly for so long. Consequently, in my management team, I have not hired anyone with hospital experience. I don't want them contaminated."

He has recruited an initial staff of 12 chefs to open the hospital, eventually to be reduced to three, and is building an apprenticeship program. Like medical residents, they will provide lower cost service while training. The apprentices will staff seven different food preparation stations at Henry's, representing various international food styles and American, and learn how to "build" a good deli sandwich. As they master each station, they move on to another. The apprentices will have a more intense training process there than anywhere else in the region, Prentice says.

Ford West Bloomfield CEO, Gerard van Grinsven, a former Ritz Carleton hotel executive, envisions developing a health care culinary institute. Initial discussions between the hospital and Schoolcraft College are exploring how the institute would be defined and administered. In the meantime, the two have developed "Culinary Partners in Health," a series of community education programs on healthy food preparation, held in the hospital's 90-seat demonstration kitchen. The kitchen will eventually host television productions on food preparation. Next fall, Schoolcraft will offer a course in healing cuisine, Prentice says.

Kelli Lewton-Secondino, an adjunct faculty member at Schoolcraft and owner of 2 Unique, a catering and events planning company, and Pure Food, an organic food purveyor, is the school's liaison to Ford West Bloomfield. "I'm a believer in holistic medicine… food is medicine," she says. "Why wouldn't a hospital have really good food made from scratch that's organic?"

Lewton-Secondino, who is completing a certification program in holistic nutrition, is aghast that "someone may get through culinary school and not have an understanding of what pure, real food is.
… We believe that real food will produce vibrant health. 'Food as medicine' would be our first course."

She says it's too premature to discuss specifics regarding Schoolcraft's new course offerings or the evolving culinary institute, but she's "excited" with the prospect that the nation's first health care culinary institute may be in West Bloomfield. "People will come from all over the United States to learn at our healing school. … Students will learn what real food is and where it all begins. There's such a disconnect between the land, the farm, and the plate."

Prentice says that students will "learn more in a month here than they would in a year at a culinary institute." Perhaps the first student is Prentice, himself. "I'm a guy who loves a big, fat medium rare steak that I know I shouldn't eat..." For the month of March, however, he will eat only his new recipes prepared in the hospital kitchen. After that, he'll go on a national marketing circuit selling this new way of doing things to other health systems.

He's written a 48-page required reading manual,
The Health and Illness Prevention Aspects of Food, for the food service staff. He's also in the process of writing a complete book on the subject, including recommendations on how to match foods with ailments for maximum recovery potential, and an "entertaining" memoir of "the journey we've had, from a chef's perspective, that will be somewhat like Kitchen Confidential  ...without all the sex stuff."

Dennis Archambault is a regular contributor to Metromode and Model D. His last article was Dearborn, An Arsenal Of Diversity?