From the Central Kitchen to the tray

Barb Sweet
Published on December 24, 2011

The number of patients in hospital over the holidays is reduced to the sickest of the sick and while hospital food is not the ideal Christmas meal, Central Kitchen cooks try to make it traditional.

Preparations for the meal began Thursday at the Central Kitchen, with rolls of turkey breast cooked and put in a special chiller that reduces the temperature safely so it can be stored in the fridge for a few days.

Trucks are set to roll out from the industrial park building bound for metro hospitals at 8 a.m. on Christmas Day carrying trays that will be heated in computerized ovens at each location.

While dinner features the traditional ingredients - potato, turnip, carrot, peas, savoury dressing and optional cranberry sauce on the side - the presentation may vary depending on a patient's needs, which may include pureed or minced turkey.

Central Kitchen calls the mincing and pureeing "texture modification."

On Thursday, The Telegram toured the Central Kitchen, which is located inside an unmarked blue building. One side of the building houses the production facility, the other distribution.

The kitchen is smaller than you would imagine and is managed by Morrison Foods. Managers work for Morrison, while the other staff are Eastern Health employees and members of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees (NAPE). Many were formerly employed in hospital cafeterias. Central Kitchen opened in 1998 and employs 192.

"You'd never say we are doing 5,000 meals out of this building a day," said Mike Power, the director responsible for food service.

As some workers finished off French toast for the day's breakfast, others carved up the turkey rolls - dark meat for soup and white for the Christmas meal.

"You don't see a turkey with its legs up," Power said.

"For us to cook a turkey is too much of a safety risk. You can't use one with bones because it is too dangerous."

During The Telegram's visit, large bags of turkey soup were waiting to go in the chiller, while other employees prepared fruit trays for meetings.

"Nobody cooks hot food and ships it out anymore. It's too unsafe," Power said of the chiller.

The company also prepares food for the public cafeterias at the hospital and for functions.

Some 6,000 Christmas meals were served to Eastern Health staff recently. Power said the meals were identical to what's going to be served to the patients.

On Christmas, 46 staff will be working at the kitchen over two shifts. There are usually around 850 hospital meals prepared for a sitting, but during the holidays the number is likely to be reduced to 600, with those who can go home for the holiday discharged.

Executive chef Mike King said the fact that the people admitted over Christmas are the sickest of the sick presents an even more challenging week for preparing meals.

Nevertheless, there will be a special breakfast of orange juice, bacon and eggs and toast, along with a Christmas card on each tray.

The Christmas meal will be served at lunch with candy canes. Patients can have Hunter's pudding with non-alcoholic rum-flavoured sauce, or the standard fruit cup, vanilla pudding or Jell-o.

The meal will require 70 kilograms of turkey and 50 kilograms of vegetables.

For supper there will be cold plates.

Power acknowledged that people don't always like everyday hospital food.

"Rubbery" is a common description from people who have been in hospital.

Power said the recipes are computerized and can't be tinkered with, and very little spice is used, so it's hard to get flavour into the food.

He said he only gets four or five formal complaints a year, but also as many compliments.

He also acknowledged it's not easy for a complaint to make it to his desk.

"Because there was no format laid down for how you can get to us guys," he said. "It's challenging."

Power insists it's a myth that the hospital food is shipped in already cooked from other sites in North America.

"We have nine full Red Seal cooks right here," he said.

"We bring in the raw product. Newfoundland doesn't supply any raw product. High quality? Absolutely. It's all grade A. We don't have any substandard products in here."

Power said the company has talked to local farmers but can't get a guarantee of product all year round, which affects cost.

The meal ingredients are measured through a computer program because it's the safest way to maintain the nutritional consistency, Power said.

"The message that I would love to get out to the community is there is a big huge difference in our facility here and a hotel. ... We got a zero tolerance on the back door. Safety is our major concern."

Nursing homes have their own kitchens - Morrison ships bulk food, not trays, to a few of them.

Power said the kitchen is inspected by its company officials each month, plus there are government inspections every quarter and an independent auditor does unannounced audits.

Morrison is part of the Compass Group of Canada and has dozens of contracts in the province, including schools and Memorial University.