It’s no secret I’ve been a longtime fan of the Culinary and Nutrition team at UNC Rex Healthcare. I spent several months there during my dietetic internship and have always been impressed with the innovation and creativity their crew offers. All of the meals are tailor-made to meet every patient and guest’s nutrition needs while implementing current culinary trends.
Director of Culinary and Nutrition Services Jim McGrody, Executive Chef Ryan Conklin and their team have been the movers and shakers in the hospital food realm since the introduction of the Black Hat Chefs program in 2006. This program was founded by Jim in an effort to maintain the enthusiasm and culinary growth that’s crucial for any team, especially a large food service operation.
Many people may question how “culinary” and “hospital food” go together, but the Black Hat Chefs prove day in and day out that they run their hospital cafes just like any restaurant. Meals are customized to meet nutrition needs, but flavor or variety are never lacking.
As Rex Hospital recently expanded to include a multi-million dollar Heart & Vascular Hospital, Jim, Ryan and their team were faced with their next challenge. They knew they would have another cafe in the new digs, but which style of service and food cuisine did they want to offer? Over many hours of brainstorming and road trips of research, they created Kardia Cafe. The menu dishes up Mediterranean style food in a build-your-own format or you can choose a composed offering from the menu. As Kardia is the only cafe in this new cardiac hospital, it only made sense to serve a variety of foods that emphasized heart health. Mediterranean eating patterns have been found to be heart healthy as they incorporate a diverse array of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and fish. Although the exact ingredients vary from region to region along the Mediterranean Sea, Kardia tries to encapsulate it all by using varied herbs and spices, too.
Kardia follows in the footsteps of Rex’s other cafes in that everything is as fresh as possible and local when feasible. While Jim and Ryan oversee things, Chef James and Branda run Kardia on a day-to-day basis to make sure things are smooth sailing. Although eating at a cafe inside of a hospital may seem unconventional, I can confidently say the meal was far fresher in quality and taste than just about every other salad place I’ve been to in the Triangle. You can’t beat the price, either. Where else can you get a freshly squeezed orange juice with a build your own salad of 5+ toppings for under $12?
As a chef and dietitian, I’ve always known eating healthfully can be delicious. However, it’s motivating and inspiring on a completely different level to see what Rex is doing for hundreds of people on a daily basis. When you’re sick and in the hospital, it’s even more vital to have food that not only nourishes and heals you, but tastes good. Jim, Ryan and the entire Culinary and Nutrition team have been paving the way from the beginning to showcase this is not just a theory, but their practice, with their patrons.