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Hospitals add a dash of gourmet

TWIN FALLS, Idaho – Hospital food is about as infamous as cafeteria fare and airline eats, but that’s changing in Twin Falls.

Patients at St. Luke’s Magic Valley Regional Medical Center custom order steaks. Doctors dine on poached salmon. Administrators munch fresh roasted vegetables. Some may eat better at the hospital than they do at home.

The food comes from the hospital’s basement, where a soft-spoken chef recently fried patients’ eggs and coated racks of lamb in a Dijon mustard sauce in a crowded stainless steel kitchen.

Joe Szerwo, the hospital’s head chef since July, previously cooked for tuxedoed high rollers in Las Vegas’ premier hotels. Now, he crafts béarnaise sauce for surgery patients in hospital gowns.

Tasty food speeds recovery, hospital officials say. Patients are more likely to stay in the area for medical procedures when they know they’ll eat well. And the staff is happier dining on soup du jour than mashed potatoes scooped like ice cream.

Mahi-mahi costs a bit more than frozen fish sticks, but it’s worth the price for higher patient satisfaction, said Kelee Hansen, the hospital’s food service director. She said patients began sending their compliments to the chefs about three years ago, when the hospital switched from a cafeteria-style menu to one that works more like hotel room service.

Institutions are increasingly luring chefs from restaurants and convention centers, where cooks work in lower-key environments and enjoy a more laid-back lifestyle outside the kitchen. The College of Southern Idaho’s contract food service operation also recently hired a top chef.

It’s a trend that’s developing nationwide, Hansen said.

Szerwo came to Twin Falls from Vancouver, Wash., with his wife, who is an Idaho native, after his children graduated from high school. They’re both enjoying the move.

“I passed maybe two cars on my way in to work this morning,” Szerwo said on a recent afternoon in the hospital lunch room, after enjoying a salad he made. He’s spent nearly his whole life commuting in Los Angeles, Vegas and Vancouver.

Living in Twin Falls, he said, is more relaxing, and it allows him to focus on the food.

At some of his previous jobs, Szerwo managed staffs of 250, rarely doing much hands-on cooking. Here, about 25 people work under him, and he cooks every day in the same chef garb he wore in high-level kitchens.

The hospital cooking space is more intimate, and he says the relaxed vibe is comforting. Szerwo said he’s worked in some kitchens where the pot-and-pan storage rooms were larger than his entire new work area.

But Szerwo is still adjusting to working on a budget a 10th of some of his previous jobs. He spends about $20,000 a week on food in Twin Falls, much of it from local producers.

“But we never compromise quality to get the best price on something,” he said.

St. Luke’s will also spare no expense for the new hospital’s modern kitchen, which will feature an outdoor patio barbecue pit and other amenities you wouldn’t expect to find in a medical center.

“You’re not going to walk in and say this looks like a hospital,” he said.

Judging by the menu, patients aren’t going to say it tastes much like hospital fare, either.