Chef Ryan Conklin Is Elevating the Art of Hospital Food

UNC REX Healthcare
UNC REX Healthcare / UNC REX Healthcare

A hospital is one of the last places you might expect to find a great Thanksgiving dinner. But some people are actually choosing to spend their holiday at UNC REX Healthcare, a hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, just to taste the legendary food. “Someone told me they came there for Thanksgiving last year because they knew they’d get a good meal,” Ryan Conklin, UNC REX's executive chef, tells mental_floss. “It’s the ultimate compliment.”

Conklin joined UNC REX as a chef in 2008 after four years in a managerial role at a New York state healthcare system. Unlike other chefs in the healthcare food service industry, Conklin also has extensive restaurant experience. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and went on to work as a chef at New York City’s Four Seasons hotel. His passion for high-quality cuisine is something he brought with him to his current position, and it shows in his menu.

A typical meal served at UNC might include their signature lime-and-ginger-glazed salmon, or the popular Southern-style pecan-crusted chicken. The kitchen staff tries to source their ingredients locally whenever possible, and they even offer seasonal tasting menus during the warmer months. This summer, patients had the option to order heirloom tomato tasting plates, complete with menu cards describing where each variety was grown.

“We like to see ourselves as leading the way of reinventing modern healthcare cuisine,” says Conklin. “We really care about making sure our patients are fed well. For one moment, we can make them feel like they’re not in a hospital.”

So far the patient response has been tremendous, but they're not the only ones who’ve taken notice of the quiet culinary revolution happening inside the hospital's kitchen. Two years after he joined the staff, Conklin signed his team up for a competition at Johnson & Wales University to battle against other hospital chefs. They took home the gold medal, which encouraged them to sign up for even more healthcare food service competitions across the country. 

Soon they were being mentioned in industry trade magazines, and then in larger consumer publications such as GQ and Condé Nast Traveler. People began visiting UNC for no other reason than to try the nationally acclaimed hospital food for themselves.

Today, UNC REX isn’t just known for serving great hospital food; they’re known for serving some of the greatest food in the state. This distinction was reinforced on Halloween night, when Conklin led his team of chefs to a final-round victory in the statewide “Got to Be NC” cooking competition. The competitors included 60 of the best fine dining chefs from across North Carolina, and after a year-long competition it was the hospital chefs who were crowned the winners. “A lot of people didn’t think we even deserved be there,” admits Conklin. “Our expertise comes from serving a lot of people every day. I think that ultimately was an advantage for us.” 

Now that he’s upped the culinary game within UNC REX, Conklin hopes to revolutionize the dining experience in hospitals across the country. Serving restaurant-quality meals isn’t as impractical as many healthcare facilities might assume.

By cooking their food from scratch instead of buying pre-packaged meals, Conklin insists his team is actually saving the hospital money in the long run. The secret is for hospitals to invest the time in providing their chefs with professional training, as UNC has done with its Black Hat Chefs program. That way they will be able to make the most of whatever ingredients they have. “A lot of places out there might not have the culinary talent to utilize, let’s say, the ends of the tomato,” Conklin explains. “Let’s turn those tomato ends into a fire-roasted tomato salsa! We try to create a culture that says, 'Let’s save everything and make the most out of it.'"

Representatives from healthcare organizations have come from all over to learn from the chefs at UNC. And Conklin and his team regularly visit hospitals to work with their culinary staffs and inspire them to produce elevated hospital cuisine. He hopes to one day find a way to provide his healthcare cuisine to patients on a broader scale. But for now, Conklin is focused on giving patients a Thanksgiving they’ll never forget. Says Conklin: "Just because you’re in a hospital cafeteria doesn’t mean you can’t have an excellent roast turkey."

All images courtesy of UNC REX Healthcare