Not such Irish luck!
When one thinks of the Food and Beverage (F&B) industry, it’s easy to become lost in the importance of, and the vast expanse of it in our daily lives. The fathoms of this vast, abundant culinary diversity should be quite evident; since really all it takes is to drive down a street or freeway, seeing all of the various fast food or stand-alone restaurant signs that abound within our visual scan of the spectral horizon. But, think for a moment about the expansive underground…if I may call it, of some of the unseen or behind-the-scenes food services that take place everyday…everywhere.
I’m writing today about Tri-City Hospital in Carlsbad, Ca…, or is it Oceanside…or is it Vista, CA. Hence the name Tri-City. I think it sits right on the cusp of all three cities. A hospital is one of those unseen, unheard-of, undesired components of our everyday existence that we forget about… until we need it. It’s one of those segments of the F&B industry that is not glorified by the Food Network or Cooking Channel. It’s not one of those places that we seek out in search of just the right meal for an anniversary or other significant celebration. It is not one of those types of businesses that every culinarian dreams of “owning my own restaurant”. This…, is the food that is designed to be nutritious, nutritionally well balanced, catering to special patient needs, and yet . . . good?
Think about the kind of person it takes to become devoted to working in this environment; an environment that is truly of a service to the patron. The epitome of service…, to care for the sick, weak and possibly dying; with no chance of monetary reward other than some lousy hourly wage. Not even a chance of getting some shared fragments of the wait staff tips. To become those that become critically ridiculed by the sick family member, the loved ones, other family members and friends of the incapacitated, diseased and the terminally ill. Often times, these family and friends are the ones becoming critical of the food that is being consumed, only to add fuel to the fire of those that lay in the sick bed. Collectively, including those in the beds, can be safely referred to as “assholes”. Those patrons that chefs, cooks and staff have to provide for every day, around the clock, with a variety of culinary expectation from around the culinary spectrum. I call them assholes because every one of them has some form of opinion…including me, and they all stink!
Think for a moment about what you picture as hospital food, the way it looks on the plate when revealed from under the mystery- dome, the moist towellette nearby on the tray waiting in the wrapper, the saltines…or salt-less tines, if on a doctor’s cardiac selection, the orange juice carton, the milk carton, the straw,…remember just how absolutely great that meal was. Think about the last time you had a stay in a hospital bed. Think about the tasteless, luke-warm, colorless and texture-less crap that sat before your eyes and nose. Lurking and waiting for your liberally salivating glands. At least 4 … maybe a 5-star delight. Remember thinking “this is bull shit…give me a friggin’ burrito!”
Yes, I’m writing this while helping to comfort a sick loved family member. I sit writing while waiting for the next culinary treat to arrive around dinner time, so I can try that offering. Earlier, I remember the hospital staff coming in the room to take the next day’s food request from my sick family member. “For breakfast, would you like scrambled cholesterol free egg whites or oatmeal?” “Orange juice or apple juice?” “Coffee or tea?” “Milk or water?”. “Fresh fruit or applesauce?” “Toasted wheat or toasted white bread?” “For lunch… forget it!!! I was exhausted from just listening to her. How do you think the sick was feeling right now…probably sicker-er…er. This went on for a good ten minutes.I was listeneing to this and… I was being a critical dick! “Just friggin’ bring her some food…whatever it is”, I thought…”just shut up…I’m getting a headache”, thinking about the variety of choices and options being offered, specifically designed around a predetermined set menu of culinary offerings for just that one single day. Now multiply that by seven. I remember putting a 7-day 3 meal menu together in one of my classes. That was very burdensome.
Let’s pause for a moment and go get some lunch downstairs in the cafeteria. This is the place that serves food to the visitors of the sick, and any of the hospital staff that decides to eat there. Their menu alone had a set variety specifically around a cash (or credit) and carry…or dine-in philosophy. This was a restaurant. But behind the restaurant was the hidden industry prepping those specifically designed meals to cater to those in the beds upstairs. At Tri-City Hospital, the cafeteria setup included a substantially diverse menu with freshly and semi-freshly prepared or unprepared items. Some of which are cooked right before your eyes on the hot grill or the 365-degree deep-fat fryer. Maybe a salad bar suits you…maybe a pre-packaged sandwich and a bag of chips. Maybe a bottled water and candy bar. Whatever it was…there was a huge selection to satisfy my desires as a walk-in patron. For today was Saint Patrick’s Day…,they even had menu items centered around this festive annual celebration to include the ol’ standby, Corned Beef and Cabbage…etc. They even had made a “Traditional Irish Stew”. I tried that one but it wasn’t much of a standout. Palatable but not something to write home about. I also had some kind of chicken sandwich with bacon and sautéed spinach, served with tater tots and a well presented plate beautifully garnished with perfectly sliced tomatoes and vibrant green leaf lettuce. Very tasty.
Returning upstairs, the lunch meal had just been presented to the patient in typical hospital fashion. Rolling table carefully positioned. Tray placed in an inconvenient location scattered amongst the facial tissue, water cup and straw, the reading glasses etc. As the bed back is raised into an uncomfortable position, the staff member asks “are you comfortable?” “Anything else?” I’m again thinking to myself, ”You know what?…, just get outta here”. I remember that when I was in the bed, it was just easier to adjust myself after the staff member left, so I can get just the proper angle, the right amount of leverage, just the right placement…of my flavorless Jello and bullion. What misery!
Well the dome was lifted…the great “Mystery dome”. The insulated food transporter thingy that is supposed to keep the hot food hot…I believe +145 degrees (if I remember, hot service table temp). Well, it steamed, so I assumed it was hot. As I began to write about my cafeteria experience, my loved one kept saying how delicious things were…so I decided to investigate. I immediately targeted the steemed asparagus spears to check for proper doneness…perfect. I mean really prefect. I could not have imagined them any more perfect. They were a little pale, but what’s to be expected for being cooked downstairs and transported up after probably a half hour or so. Good job. I then targeted the sliced roast pork loin with some kind of cranberry glaze. Not too bad…not too dry and just the right amount of sauce to help choke it down. It also wasn’t bad. The plate was laid out hospital style, with menu items segregated carefully but not artfully. Quantities of items were proportioned properly and the plate was also hot. My loved one kept saying that things were very good, and ate a good sizeable amount.
Well, if this is what a hospital stay is all about nowadays, then things are looking pretty good. The staff behind the scenes, preparing these meals, the directors of culinary activities, the nutritionists, the serving and cleaning staff all need to be commended. I know this writing may fall on deaf ears, but remember the work that goes into these operations, the training that many…if not most, of the culinary staff possess and the degree of professionalism in the kitchen. Remember that not all culinary dreams end up on “Chopped” or “Top Chef”. Not all of the dreams of owning one’s own restaurant can happen overnight. Not everyone in the restaurant, food and beverage industry can be glorified…but their existence can definitely be justified.
Thanks to the staff and operations of all underground food and beverage culinaires!!!