By Jeff Kramer
Jokes about bad hospital food seem hopelessly dated the moment you enter Thomas Kiernan’s block-long kitchen at Upstate. Whether it’s a celebrating a perfect pot roast or heaping praise on local squash, the one indispensable ingredient in every recipe is passion. On this bright, brisk November day, even the humble chickpea has Upstate’s top chef whipped into a zestful froth. Those bland little orbs, you see, are the magic ingredients in an orange muffin recipe that draws raves.
“It’s a phenomenal recipe because it’s so light and airy,” enthuses Kiernan. “If I didn’t tell you (it has chickpeas), you’d never know.” Plus, he notes, “you’re getting a protein and a complex carbohydrate.”
A towering, bearish man on bad knees, Kiernan wears a big white chef’s hat and has a title to match: Regional Executive Chef for Morrison Healthcare, the contracted food service company that manages Upstate’s Food and Nutrition Services Department. At Upstate alone he oversees 50 production workers who each day crank out 1,050 patient meals daily plus enough cafeteria victuals to sate 2,500 customers. Menus must accommodate nine different diets and 273 food allergies. The kitchen purchases nearly $3 million of food annually. And yes, they cater.
Kiernan also has general oversight for food service at 13 other hospitals in New York and Pennsylvania.
“It’s a huge undertaking,” says Kiernan, but he seems to feed off it … literally. After all, to get the perfect muffin recipe, one has to taste a lot of muffins. It’s the same with meatloaf, orzo salad and post-op whole wheat fajitas. “By the time you’ve eaten it, we’ve eaten it 10 times.”
With the unveiling in December of The Great Living Menu, Kiernan’s taste buds are working overtime. Morrison spent more than two years developing the concept, which is transforming Upstate’s food service from “almost steam table cooking to almost short-order cooking.”
Kiernan came to Upstate 4 1/2 years ago, and has been on a mission ever since to emphasize fresh, local ingredients. Before that he was Chef de Cuisine at Cornell and Executive Chef at SUNY-Cortland. He’s a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. It’s an impressive background, yet like all chefs Kiernan has had a few failures, none more glaring than combining fresh crab and watermelon into perhaps the worst-tasting appetizer in gastronomic history.
Kiernan was trying for something fresh and fun for the opening of the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in 2009. Watermelons were in season and particularly succulent. He also had a beautiful shipment of crab legs. Why not combine the two, he figured, and add a spritz of fresh lime juice?
“It is the most disgusting flavor combination I’ve ever tasted,” Kiernan says, laughing in his windowless office. “You know when they spray the farms with that liquid rotted fish juice? That is what it was like.”
Happily such stinkers are rare.
Despite his experimental bent, Kiernan gets that he’s not here to reinvent the meal – just to make it taste better with less salt and fat. His crew spends a lot of time upgrading classics. “A good lasagna, a good cobbler, there’s something comforting in that,” he says. “Food is part of healing.”
Upstate humorist Jeff Kramer is a veteran journalist who writes occasionally for Upstate Health and the What’s Up at Upstate blog.
Try the Orange Muffin recipe
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