The problem with getting the assignment for this story was not the "who, what, where, when or why." Instead, it was "what should I wear?"
After all, I would be spending the night with some of Los Angeles' top ophthalmologists, surgeons, hospital administrators and medical writers. Although I am in the habit of sacking out in hand-me-down T-shirts earned by my mate in various 10K competitions, I felt I should be better attired when dinner and breakfast, prepared by a former chef of Perino's, were served to me in bed.
The offbeat slumber party was planned as an opportunity for the staff of the $15-million Estelle Doheny Eye Hospital on the USC Health Sciences campus to check out the new service-oriented facility before the arrival of the first patients this week. So key personnel and members of the press tested the new beds and showers in the 35 private rooms, toured the four operating rooms and dined on the food of chef, Keith Chateauneuf.
Service and Food Improving
"The health industry is beginning to realize you can pay attention to services and still provide good medical care," said Paul Hensler, the hospital's administrator.
"The philosophy used to be that taking care of hotel functions is demeaning to medicine. If you served powdered eggs and artificial ice cream, then patients could only assume the medical care must be better. But then there are those who think 'If they can't get my carrots to me warm how can they take care of me medically?' "
"It costs us no more to do it right," said Hensler. "That's why we hired an experienced chef from a well-known restaurant." Chateauneuf, who was looking for work after Perino's 18-month-old, five-restaurant complex closed its downtown doors in bankruptcy at the end of last year, took the job opportunity because "I found it interesting that a hospital wanted to get away from institutional food."
Since that time he has been paying attention to the details. There were wine glasses to choose, flower vases to purchase, a hospital kitchen to adapt to and, of course, menus to plan and a kitchen staff to assemble.
Free Rein on Menu Planning
The hospital administration gave Chateauneuf, who has 14 years experience in four different cuisines, a free rein on menu planning and agreed to let him bring a crew of his co-workers from Perino's on board.
Cooking three gourmet meals a day for 35 patients and providing the cafeteria food for visitors and up to 70 hospital staff members was no problem, said the chef, standing in the tight quarters he shares with a kitchen staff of nine. "We're a team," he said, concentrating on the perfect patterning of snow peas on a dinner plate and speaking Spanish to his assistant chef, undaunted by the presence of a photographer's lens.
About the only aspect of the job that seems to have given Chateauneuf concern was the hiring of a dietitian. "I had this preconceived image of dietitians," he said, admitting that he always thought dietitians cared only about the nutritional value of food.."
But, when registered dietitian Judith Del Vecchio was hired, Chateauneuf was anxious to begin working with her. "The most impressive thing on Judith's resume wasn't what I'd heard about dietitians. She was into French cooking. I didn't know anything about her end of the job, but I wanted her to know my job," he said.
Caters to Dietaray Needs
Del Vecchio, who has worked both as a hospital dietitian and a consultant providing menu and recipe development and testing to cookbook authors, will assist Chateauneuf with the clinical side of menu planning, modifying his recipes to patients' special dietary needs, such as diabetic diets. In addition, she will provide nutrition education to the hospital staff and be responsible for outreach work in the community.
"I think this is a good experience for a dietitian to be involved in quality food service and nutrition," she said. "It's really exciting to be able to bring my clinical background together with Keith's chefing. . . . We're learning from each other."
Giving Del Vecchio an approving glance, Chateauneuf said, "Judith is even getting into the presentation of foods now. "My crew is inspired because of the non-institutional attitude of the hospital's administration," he said. "We're not into institutional food; we're into gourmet, and no other hospital can touch us in terms of quality and presentation."
The dinner presentation for the over-nighters included a properly cooked filet mignon and duchess potatoes piped prettily into rosettes. The plate composition was completed with baby carrots and snow peas, cooked tender but still brightly colored.
A Bit Disappointing