At Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, hospital food gets top chef treatment

Dinner served on pre-warmed plates topped with silver platter covers is not an image typically associated with hospital cafeterias. Filet mignon and Moroccan lamb stew is the last thing on most patients’ minds as they check in for surgery. 

At Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, chef Chris Singlemann is changing all that.

“People don’t want to be in the hospital, but I’ve tried to make their stay a bit better by serving them high-quality food,” said Mr. Singlemann. “Our kitchen runs like a fine-dining restaurant.”

The initiative at Northwell Health — the state’s largest healthcare network with 27 hospitals spanning Long Island, New York City and Westchester­­ — is part of a growing focus in recent years among hospital administrators nationwide on the quality of hospital food. 

“For years, hospital administrators looked at food not as a benefit to the patient, but purely as a number on the balance sheet,” Sven Gierlinger, senior vice president and chief experience officer at Northwell Health, said in a recent press release. ”Everything we were serving was processed, with much of it frozen or canned and containing all sorts of unhealthy ingredients — which is completely counterintuitive to good health.”

The move is also a response to the growing list of dietary restrictions among patients. Between 2015 and 2018, more than 17% of American adults were on a special diet on any given day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mr. Singlemann is certified in gluten-free cooking by the National Celiac Association.

A three-course meal prepared for a patient at Peconic Bay Medical Center. (Credit: Lilly Parnell)

The overhaul of Northwell Health’s kitchens began in 2017 with the hiring of Michelin-starred chef Bruno Tinson as Northwell’s head chef, overseeing the healthcare network’s small army of chefs. Mr. Singlemann, who was hired in 2018, is one of those chefs.

There are several ways in which food is served at PBMC, depending on dietary restrictions. A breakfast, lunch and dinner a la carte menu is offered to patients, featuring a seasonal selection of cold and grilled sandwiches, a create-your-own-omelet option, turkey white bean chili, filet mignon, vegan lemon-and-vegetable orzo and a freshly caught fish of the day. 

Patients or family members can call or send a text to place an order. Delivery to the patient’s room is guaranteed within 45 minutes. A similar buffet menu, which changes daily, is also available for staff and visitors.

Colleagues said Mr. Singlemann’s impact at PBMC has been significant. 

“There’s been a metamorphosis since he came into our kitchen,” said Moussa Loum, a cook who has worked at PBMC since 1994. “We no longer just reheat frozen food. Before chef Chris was hired, we would pour dehydrated mashed potatoes into a pot of boiling water. Now, we peel and boil them to make fresh mashed potatoes every day. 

“And the patients definitely notice,” she added.

Mr. Singlemann has worked in kitchens all of his adult life. Feeding people runs in his family, he said. Both he and his brothers followed in the footsteps of their grandfather, a New England-based recipe developer and chef. Mr. Singlemann cooked in five-star kitchens across Long Island and trained in French-style cuisine before arriving at PBMC.

“My life has always been centered around food,” he said. “Sunday afternoons growing up were spent around the dinner table. But the restaurant industry is brutal and not sustainable. When I saw the opportunity at Northwell Health, I knew I had the chance to do something different. This has been one of the most rewarding jobs of my career.”

Mr. Singlemann said he has worked hard since 2018 to forge a new reputation for the food at PBMC in the hopes of improving the quality of overall patient care. He is known for making visits to patients’ rooms to ensure their meal was satisfying in what is typically a difficult time for many.

PBMC staffers say all the hard work is paying off. 

“It’s having an effect on the patients and we get so many compliments on our food,” said Victoria Palacio, PBMC’s director of marketing. “That perception is very much flipped on its head when you’re here and you get a chance to taste the food. Everyone is very happy with this and people actually ask to stay an extra day so they can have more of the food.”

Mr. Singlemann’s philosophy that “food is medicine” has changed the way PBMC goes about caring for their patients, strengthening the implicit ties between nutrition and patient wellness. 

“Food was a secondary thought when it came to the medical world,” he said of patient menus. “The food we eat directly impacts our physical and mental health, including our ability to heal.” 

Mr. Singlemann said that when it comes to patients, a personal touch can go a long way. 

“A few weeks back I met with a Puerto Rican woman who was having a hard time during her stay,” he said. “I knew there wasn’t much I could do to help her health, but I offered to make her rice and beans. I thought giving her a bite of home would increase her spirits. And it did.”