What We Feed Our Patients: The Hospital Food Revolution at Rex

Story by Matt Young. Photos by Hal Goodtree.

Cary, NC – As a child, Jim McGrody watched Julia Child on a black-and-white television in his bedroom. He made pancakes for his brothers when he was in second grade. He knew that when he grew up, he wanted to be a chef. But now, Jim is leading a food revolution – from the kitchen of Rex Hospital.

His mission: abolish the notion that hospital food is bad.

Pan-Seared Salmon and Blueberry Panna Cotta

We were so intrigued by this story, we had to make a visit to Rex Hospital to see what author/chef Jim McGrody was doing. Jim is the Director of Food and Nutrition at Rex Healthcare in Raleigh. He recently had his book published: What We Feed Our Patients. The book is written from his “notes” over many years in the food industry – as a pot scrubber in high school, a cook in the military, a restaurant chef, college chef and leader in healthcare food service.

We were greeted by a happy staff which was at the same time bustling around doing lunch prep in an immaculate, huge kitchen. We met his “Black Hat” Chef – Ray D’Ottavio – who proudly had us taste the food. Braised zucchini, pan-seared salmon and wild rice, thank you very much. And blueberry panna cotta for dessert. A normal Rex Hospital meal. I unabashedly asked for the panna cotta recipe, and got it. He explained that people still want (or need) Jell-o. Even that had panache – it was a jello parfait! Quality control is everywhere, from dietary restrictions to “plating”.

 

Jim told CaryCitizen: “I love food and now being in healthcare, it is even more rewarding to be part of someone’s recovery. I really wrote the book because I always thought that there is no way anyone would believe this. For years I used to say ‘Well that’s gotta go in the book’. One day I just started writing it all down.”

Jim grew up in Massachusetts. He’d been washing dishes for a year in high school, he eventually begged the owner to move up to the cook’s position. He was told, “Kid, you are too young; you’ll get hurt up there.”  He told the owner he would do it for free for a week and if he didn’t work out he would go back to the pots sink. “He must have been impressed that I wanted it so bad, because he gave me a chance.” He showed up for work assuming he was going to get to work the 12 burner stove. The cooks laughed and relegated him to prep. He diced onions, shelled clams and peeled potatoes for chowder, cleaned squid, filleted fish and stuffed lobsters. He stunk when he got home so much that his mother made him remove his shoes before entering the house.

Determined to Change Hospital Food

Jim enlisted in the US Army as a food specialist (he ended up as a paratrooper as well). He eventually found himself in Fort Bragg, here in North Carolina.  In his book, Jim tells several interesting stories about cooking for large crowds, and “diversity”.

“You will all get along, or I will kill you – all of you” – Jim’s drill instructor in his “inspiration of the day”.

Jim went from experience to experience (some hilarious, some scary) all around the country after he graduated from the well-known Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.

Over time he became determined to change “institutional food service”. The food did not have to be bad. He took what he had learned over the course of many years – serving thousands of people at a time and was determined to apply the “good practices” to the health industry.

Black Hats

Jim finally ends up working in several hospitals in Washington DC, Virginia and finally UNC Chapel Hill.

“My family packed the truck and headed back to North Carolina, the state where I had spent my army years. I liked it then and knew it would be a good fit for my family.” – From What We Feed Our Patients

Jim told us, “I love North Carolina. We now live in Apex. My wife works as a nurse at UNCCH. I spent my Army years here so I knew North Carolina. I do however remember being 19 years old and going to a pig pickin’ for the first time. As a kid from New England, I had never seen anything remotely close to that. I remember thinking…’barbaric’… now I get it.”

The book delves into how food service can transition from Jell-O, fruit cocktail, reheated scrambled eggs and steamed meat to real food. It also touches on marketing, public relations and the business side of food prep and service.

Jim comes up with a program call “Black Hats” (the name taken from Fort Benning jump school instructors who were called the Black Hats. They were “the most hardcore” people Jim had ever met). The program awards Black Hat status (and the hats themselves) to chefs for the accomplishment of specific mastery objectives.

Hospital Food Revolution – On the Table at Rex

Eventually Jim becomes Director of Food and Nutrition at Rex Healthcare. With his staff and supervisors and through his leadership they begin to talk about and execute the use of fresh herbs, cooked to order food, better fare for vistors and staff, more variety and a level of service that seems comparable in many ways to a hotel.  One example – Rex serves Larry’s Beans (a local roaster of gourmet coffee) to patients and in restaurants.

Jim told me his next challenge is this – “I want to institute a change across the country… bad food should not be served in hospitals. Period.”

Results: A satisfaction survey of patients on the hospital food at Rex went from 28% satisfied to 94% satisfied during Jim’s tenure.

Jim of course, gives all the credit to his team.

Imagine. Great hospital food.


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5 replies
  1. Oldcary
    Oldcary says:

    Rex is the best hospital in Raleigh-Cary area for this and many more reasons. Recently selected as a Top 50 hospital in country. Born there and have had 4 surgeries at Rex, all with good outcomes. Been to the ER at WakeMed a few times and it was not a positive experience. Wake is dreaming if they want to take over Rex…just bitter oats. Oh yes, the food at Rex is second to none.

  2. Jennifer Smith
    Jennifer Smith says:

    What a great article and the food looks impressive for patient food my only problem with Rex was the miscommunication that led to my father not getting fed for 15 hours after having extensive back surgery. That was probably back when the satisfaction survey was 28% and not in the 90’s where it is now. I know he would have loved the Blueberry Panna Cotta.

  3. Colleen Hatcher
    Colleen Hatcher says:

    As a recent patient at Rex, I was completely and most pleasantly surprised by the excellent quality of the meals! I am on a carb-restricted diabetic diet and the food can get pretty boring at times, but NOTHING I tasted while at Rex was anywhere close to “ho-hum” fare. I requested – and received – recipes for some of my favorites and I will definitely be making them at home. In fact, I will be taking a baking dish of Chef Jim’s Squash Casserole to our next family reunion! My question: does his book contain recipes? I will buy a copy for myself immediately, if so, and also purchase copies to give as Christmas gifts to my family members, even the ones who don’t have to have restricted diets. This food is just that good! Thank you, Rex, for starting the “revolution”! Other hospitals should follow suit.

    • Matt Young
      Matt Young says:

      The book does not contain recipes…I’ll suggest it to Jim.

      Matt Young, Managing Ed.

  4. Letha Rodman Melchior
    Letha Rodman Melchior says:

    Dear Jim,

    I commend you for the changes you have made to Rex! I’m very impressed. I have recently joined the quest for better hospital food across the nation.

    I had a 7 day stay at Duke hospital – the food was horrible! There was no nutritional value to it at all. I’ve now become a crusader for change in standards for what gets served to patients during their care. Yo know how important this is. I need help in knowing how to get the message out. I’ve created a petition to the White House for Better Hospital Food. But I’m finding it hard to get people to actually sign the petition.

    They are all happy to ‘LIKE’ my facebook page

    https://www.facebook.com/changehospitalfood

    but getting the signatures is a much harder thing.

    The petition:
    http://wh.gov/lE63F

    WE PETITION THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION TO:
    have all US hospital Food Services to be required to serve healthy nutritional food to patients receiving care.
    Hospital Food is no joke! As most hospitals contract food out to Food Service Distributors like Aramark, US. Foods, and B&G just to name a few, the quality of food has slipped way past anything that can be called nutritional. It is appalling what is put in front of very sick people. Foods that have been overcooked, fried and are high in salt. In some instances the food has been so over processed that it is inedible, hard, chewy, mushy, wet, and void of any nutrients.

    I implore people to take notice of this horrible, yes, I would call it a crime. As a patient, you are billed for these meals that are inedible, and if a patient is lucky and has family that can bring them real food – that means a patient is paying twice to eat. Please help change Hospital Food, keep people alive and well.

    Thank you all. Please share!
    http://wh.gov/lE63F

    I would appreciate any tips or help on how to spread the word. Thank you so much for your help.
    Letha Rodman Melchior

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