Hospital Food“We went back to basics. We went back to making everything from scratch.”

As heard on Today with Sean O'Rourke

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If you’re an expectant mother, a brand new mother or if you’re in hospital because you’re sick, you naturally want the best of care. But even when the medical care is excellent, often the food is really not. So why is it that the food served in hospitals always seems to be the kind of stuff that would make a sick person sicker? One chef seems to be quietly bucking the trend. Joyce Timmins, executive chef at the Rotunda Maternity Hospital in Dublin, told Seán O’Rourke how she has revamped what’s on the hospital’s menus.

“We’re just using fresh produce and we’re cooking on the day for the day.”

Joyce has come in to the Rotunda with what she describes as a “fresh eye”. It’s her first job in a hospital – she has extensive experience in restaurants around Ireland and in the UK – and she’s approaching it as a chef first and foremost. If the Rotunda was a restaurant, it’d be a big one: it has 150 beds and a staff restaurant catering for up to 200 people and Joyce is in charge of both operations. Seán wondered if there was a bigger budget involved when Joyce started to change things around. No, is the answer. Joyce used the ingredients that were already there, with one exception – processed foods.

“I’m not really a big fan of processed foods, so we went back to basics. We went back to making everything from scratch.”

It’s a little more labour intensive – pardon the pun – but Joyce is certain that it’s worth it. Seán asks about the breakfast menu for patients  – mostly fresh eggs, done in a variety of ways – and Joyce tells him that it can be cooked to order and indeed, ordered in advance the night before.

When Joyce came in as executive chef at the Rotunda, she made big, big changes. Was she worried, Seán ponders, about the staff reaction to such major changes to the way the kitchen worked?

“I was very lucky. The team that I had coming in to the kitchen, they were really on board for change. They wanted change. They needed leadership to show them, ok, this can be done and we will do it.”

When she started in the Rotunda, Joyce told Seán, the options in the evening were a salad or a sandwich. And very old-fashioned salads, to boot. The options were poor and patients were asking for things like scrambled eggs instead. It was needlessly complicated and the ends results were not great.

“So I decided to put on two main courses for lunch, one being a vegetarian, and the same in the evening.”

People were ordering the eggs, Joyce reckoned, because they thought it was the safe option. Now, they don’t have to worry because all the options are safe options. And that’s the case even when young mothers look for what sounds like it ought to be unhealthy: chicken nuggets and chips.

“They can have it… We make our own nuggets and, you know, we want it to be nutritious still for them… We just want to give them the best we can.”

There’s bad news for staff and patients at the Rotunda, though: Joyce is moving on. Here’s hoping that her successor retains her impressive legacy.

You can hear the full discussion with Joyce, as well as the rest of the Today programme, here.

© The Listener 2019

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