A NY Hospital System Has a Big-Time Chef Making Big Changes

Nov. 23, 2022 — From the moment you walk into the massive kitchen at Northern Westchester Hospital, you quickly realize that bland, processed food isn’t on the menu for patients at this Mount Kisco, NY, hospital that’s part of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state.

The first indication is the smell of apple and pear crumble that begins to waft through the massive space that resembles an industrial kitchen at a five-star resort. Next is the use of real china and utensils and a menu that reads like a fine restaurant.

A high-energy food-service team led by Andrew Cain, a Michelin-starred chef in a toque, is the exact goal Bruno Tison, Northwell’s vice president of food services and corporate executive chef, put into place when he joined the sprawling hospital system 5 years ago after serving as executive chef at New York City’s Plaza Hotel for 30 years and earning a Michelin star at California’s Sonoma Mission Inn.

“When I arrived, we were buying frozen food, reheating it, and throwing it away,” Tison says of the food served at Northwell’s 21 hospitals. “We spent as little time, attention, and money on food as possible, but food is health. Food is good medicine.”

The drive to apply hospitality practices to food prep and rethink what’s served throughout the Northwell system began in 2017 when Michael Dowling, Northwell’s CEO, tasked Sven Gierlinger, his chief experience officer, to find the right person to reinvent the way hospital food is sourced, prepared, and plated.

At the time, Northwell’s patient scores of its food ranged from the ninth percentile to the 50th percentile in terms of quality and taste. With 21 hospitals that serve more than 2 million people a year, that’s a lot of bad food. 

“Our CEO got lots of letters, including one in which a patient wrote that ‘we wouldn’t serve this food to a dog,’” Tison says. “The last thing a patient needs to worry about is the quality of the food when they’re trying to heal.”

When hospital food is so bad, it also places a burden on the family to bring food in from the outside to feed the patient, Gierlinger says.

“This adds extra stress that family members shouldn’t have,” he says. “It also takes away from the overall patient experience we want people to have when they’re being cared for by our incredible clinical staff.”

In the years since Tison hired 15 new executive chefs, nine Northwell hospitals are now in the 94th percentile or more, an accomplishment no other health system in the nation has achieved.

This hasn’t affected the system’s bottom line, either, even as Tison replaced freezers with refrigerators, removed all of the fryers, and replaced sources of added sugar with healthier options. In addition, he’s since partnered with two artisanal pastry companies, a fair trade coffee roaster, the hospitals are serving hormone-free meats, and plans are in the works to partner with several organic farms.

“We spent $500,000 less last year because we’re not throwing anything away,” Tison says. “Serving processed, pre-made food is actually more expensive than buying the raw product. You just need the labor and the skill to turn it into delicious food, and that’s what was missing in our hospitals.”

Even brewing coffee has been a cost saver, to the tune of $250,000 across the organization, Gierlinger says.

“We used to serve the most horrible coffee,” Gierlinger says. “It came frozen in containers and we’d heat it up and serve it to patients and it tasted like burnt water. That was the standard.”

For Northwell leaders, a commitment to food and nutrition has been made — and won’t ever be compromised.

“We’re paying competitive wages and paying more for our executive chefs, but that’s the only investment we’ve made,” Gierlinger says. “The return is so much greater.”

In every way that’s possible, the leadership at Northwell Health is poised to change how food is delivered to patients from this moment forward.

“We want to show all the ways in which food is a foundation of good health,” Gierlinger says. “We’ve made it our mission to move away from the terrible reputation hospital food has and transform it into fresh, delicious food that’s cooked with love.”

Besides these improvements in what’s served, the team is planning to build a teaching facility with an apprenticeship program to train chefs as well as offer hands-on training for employees and patients, and cooking classes for the community.

For example, at some hospitals, new moms and patients who are food insecure are discharged from the hospital with a basket of produce grown at on-site gardens along with tips on how to eat healthfully, all with the goal of educating the community.

In the end, Northwell patients have spoken — with their stomachs.

“We see it this way: Through the meals we serve we have this opportunity to transport patients to another world, one in which they start to feel hungry and actually look forward to meals while they’re recuperating,” Tison says. “It’s gotten to the point where patients don’t want to leave — the food here is so good.”