Imagine a tasty, healthy lunch with a view for $5. It’s available now at Holy Cross Hospital’s Wheeler Peak Café.
My father recently had a short stay at the Taos Hospital. Fortunately, the medical side of things went well, so I had a chance to notice that the lunch he was eating one day looked quite excellent. He had a grilled cheese on whole grain bread with a nice fat slice of ripe red tomato and salad. His wife was incredulous about her lunch in the Wheeler Peak café, which consisted of a variety of vegetables, tofu and brown rice. A hospital that serves edible healthy food? I decided to investigate.
Recently, I met with Holy Cross Hospital Executive Chef and Food Service Director, Matthew Currey. Full of energy and determination, Matthew makes up the menus and plans the food. His food education background is a combination of being self-taught and an apprenticeship in Colorado. He also enjoyed stints cooking at high-end restaurants in Chicago and St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. This is his first institutional job, and he still remembers what people enjoy eating. He’s also had to learn about the importance of nutrition and dietary restrictions. His focus is serving good-quality food that’s as healthy as it is tasty. Here’s my conversation with Matthew:
Gulcin: When I was here visiting my dad, I noticed that the food looked much more attractive than what I’d seen in other hospitals. Tell us a little bit more about your food strategy and style.
Matthew: Since I arrived, we’ve tried to focus on healthier foods. We do vegetarian and gluten-free options for people. Also, one of the first things I did when I got here is was to take the fryer out of the kitchen. So, everything is baked, including the French fries and chimichangas, to keep it healthier. We use reduced sodium and reduced fat in our gravies and sauces which we make from scratch. We also make them gluten-free so we can feed most of our clientele.
We have a room service menu for our patients and we developed it in a way so that about 80 percent of the people can eat everything on the menu. Most dietary restrictions are taken into consideration in our preparation. Diabetics watching their carbs and people watching their sodium intake can also enjoy a majority of our food. It gives them more choices.
Gulcin: So, it sounds like you are sourcing healthier ingredients?
Matthew: Yes, we buy meats whole that are sodium- and smoke-free. We focus on vegetables. We only serve brown rice. We also offer an “on-demand” cook station. We feature a “bar,” where we cook in front of the people. It consists of 10 different vegetables that we sauté up for our fajita bar, baked potato bar or pasta bars. Sometimes we do a Caesar salad bar. We have about 20 different cook-to-order “bars” that we rotate through. Presentation is also important. So, for instance we offer nice 12-inch bowls for our pastas.
Gulcin: I understand you have a contract with a large food conglomerate. Did you have to follow their recipes?
Matthew: Yes, we were taken over by a food-management company. But it was difficult to follow their recipes as they were not really aligned with the regional food around here. I’ve modified quite a few of the recipes to accommodate our patients and guests.
Gulcin: The locals are pretty savvy about New Mexican cuisine?
Matthew: Absolutely! If you don’t have green chili on the menu, you’re pretty much not going to have any business. We do our best to serve our local clientele.
Gulcin: Besides the “bars” what would a typical lunch consist of?
Matthew: We often have pot roast, grilled chicken, fish – sometimes salmon and shrimp, sandwiches and tacos. I don’t have a set menu like a lot of places that have a three-week cycle menu. I actually develop a menu weekly. We have our mainstay items like enchiladas and tacos but we also include other influences like Asian and Italian. We like to include a wide variety of influences so people don’t see the same thing every day.
Gulcin: What items would you have for vegetarians?
Matthew: We always have tofu, sautéed vegetables, brown rice, maybe sweet potatoes and at least two vegetables like cauliflower, asparagus or kale. And then we have a 21-item salad bar; all fresh vegetables.
Gulcin: Are any of your ingredients locally sourced?
Matthew: They used to be. We used to work with the CSA farmers in town but it was a difficult challenge for them to run through the strict federal food regulations required by hospitals. Our main provider now is Sysco Foods.
Gulcin: What happens to the excess or leftover food?
Matthew: We donate quite a bit of food left over from breakfast and lunch that we save and freeze. A gentleman comes once a week to pick it up to bring to shelters to feed the homeless.
Gulcin: Do you cater?
Matthew: We cater for our hospital staff meetings and sometimes for community events. This year we took first place in the Chili Challenge with my green chili and third place with my red. We beat out 20 other restaurants in town! It was a good year for us there.
After our interview, I had lunch. I opted for the vegetarian plate which include pinto beans, well-cooked and not overly salty; a tasty vegetable succotash which consisted of tofu, zucchini, lima beans, red and green bell peppers and corn. My favorite was a healthy portion of perfectly steamed bright green kale. I didn’t save room for desert but the gluten-free granola peach cobbler looked awesome. Another diner said he really enjoyed it.
At the end of our interview Matthew said he wanted to thank his Wheeler Peak Café team. He said he couldn’t do this work without them:
Erin Kizen (she was working the potato bar the day I was there)
Wheeler Peak Café, located inside the Taos Holy Cross Hospital offers a variety of meats, fish, vegetarian, vegan, gluten free and traditional Northern New Mexico fare. The Café is open to the public. Hours for breakfast are 7:30 to 9 a.m. The average cost for a complete breakfast is $4-5 which includes eggs, bacon, potatoes, beans, homemade red and green chilies. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to1:30 p.m., and costs around $5 and $1 extra for sides. Dinner is only available for patients.