Early in his career, Ryan Conklin used to ditch his logo-emblazoned chef's jacket before walking into a grocery store or business where the company name might be recognized.
"I didn't want people knowing I worked in a hospital kitchen," says Conklin, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who landed his first executive chef job at age 24. "I was embarrassed about the food we were serving and wanted to avoid anyone stopping me to talk about it."
With a win at the recent Fire in the Triangle portion of the Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series
, Conklin is no longer concerned about the stigma of hospital food. For the past six years, he has served as executive chef at Raleigh's Rex Healthcare, which provides nearly 4,000 meals daily. He previously earned two gold medals, in 2010 and 2012, representing Rex at the Association for Healthcare Foodservice Culinary Competition.
Conklin planned his Fire in the Triangle dishes—which featured a vast range of surprise ingredients—on his study of competitor entries that had scored best with culinary judges and paying guests. "It's not about what’s the complicated thing a chef feels like making," he says. "We focused on cooking food that would make people want to lick the bowl. I told our team, 'Every dish should make people feel like it's date night.' "
Good advice. With a $2,000 prize and a new handmade chef's knife in his kit,
Photo courtesy NC Competition Dining Series
Ryan Conklin, proud to be changing the image of hospital food.
Conklin will advance to the statewide finals to be held in October.
"How cool is that?" he says of his victory over a dozen competitors, many of them well-known chefs at critically acclaimed restaurants. "Who would have thought a hospital chef would win this thing?"
Conklin has been honing his skills in healthcare kitchens for about a dozen years. In addition to cooking for appreciative patients, chefs who work in this field have more stable work schedules than colleagues who work in public restaurants, especially those who cater to the late-night crowd.
"We're all out of here after 8 p.m. We trade weekends and we're off most holidays," says Conklin, who has cultivated a staff of former chef-owners and restaurant cooks who were glad to leave the daily grind. "With what we can accomplish here, I really don't miss working in a restaurant."
Conklin believes his team—as well as talented chefs who cook at assisted living centers and other medical facilities—has a responsibility to do more than just respond to a checkmark indicating a specific dietary need.
"We think of our operation as a hotel-style kitchen within a hospital. It's how we think about food and create new items," he says. "When I first transitioned from the restaurant industry to healthcare, it was a huge culture shock to me. Things were just thrown in the steamers. There was no passion about developing dishes or flavors. No one gave any thought to presentation.
"Today," he adds, "as far as being a chef in this field, I look at it as an untapped market dripping with opportunity and potential."
Conklin blogs about his career and collaborations with other healthcare chefs at NewSchoolHospitalFood.com
. “We've become leaders in our field at Rex, and I don't take that lightly," he says. "I like to share information with people who are also committed to reinventing healthcare cuisine.”
While dedicated to thinking outside of the box, Conklin is not offended by having to produce daily batches of that most ubiquitous hospital snack: Jell-O.
"I've got to be honest, Jell-O is a very comforting food. People want it," he says. "But we don't treat it as 'just Jell-O.' When we serve it, we make sure it's the best Jell-O you've ever had. "
Jill Warren Lucas is a Raleigh writer who blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her on Twitter at @jwlucasnc.