When the secret ingredients in the final round of the “Got to be NC” Competition Dining Series were unveiled, the team of chefs from Rex Hospital did a double-take.
The beef short loin they could handle. But their three-course meal also had to feature a variety of Italian cheeses – an area of expertise for their competitors from Curt’s Cucina, an Italian restaurant in Southern Pines.
“We’re going to have to beat someone at their own game,” thought Ryan Conklin, the executive chef at Rex, who led the team.
Conklin and his fellow chefs, Collin Jennings and Steve Pexton, got to work.
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A few hours later, they served up the dizzying array of dishes they had concocted. First and second courses that included side dishes of ricotta-based spaetzle and mozzarella grits won fans, but Curt’s Cucina still had the edge.
Then, a dessert course featuring a ricotta-vanilla bean cannoli cream and a ricotta-toffee cornmeal upside down cake brought the Rex chefs a surge of points that narrowly pushed them past the competition. They were the winners.
After weeks of cooking, Conklin and his team had outlasted 15 other teams from some of the Triangle’s most well-known restaurants in the single-elimination, head-to-head contest that wrapped up in early March. They had cooked with secret ingredients including dried shiitake mushrooms, chestnut powder, eggs and sunchokes.
And they had shown again that hospital food need not be Jell-O and limp vegetables.
Conklin suspected from the beginning that his team could do it. Lessons from the hospital – where hundreds of patients and employees tell the chefs every day if they’re doing well – were key.
“You learn what people like to eat,” Conklin said. “You learn what’s popular.”
During the competition, the team stuck to their wheelhouse, finding ways to prepare food they knew people would like, rather than trying to dazzle the diners.
It’s part of the philosophy that’s guided the chefs at Rex for years as they’ve been ambassadors for improving hospital food.
Conklin said the chefs have crafted a program that emphasizes fresh ingredients and made-to-order cooking. The hospital has done away with deep fryers and made quinoa and kale a welcome part of patients’ vocabularies.
They say comfort foods such as macaroni and cheese, meatloaf and mashed potatoes can be healthy and delicious.
“We just started to cook simple food well,” said Conklin, who joined the staff six years ago.
Jim McGrody, director of culinary and nutrition services at Rex, said in an email that he wants patients to eat a meal and forget for a moment that they’re in a hospital with its tests, surgeries and potential bad news.
A satisfied patient also is more likely to return if they must and recommend the hospital to their family and friends, he said. Patient satisfaction scores even factor into hospital Medicare payment rates, another financial consideration for institutions.
Jimmy Crippen, the founder and host of the dining series, said it was an easy decision to bring Rex into the competition.
“These guys are established chefs working in a professional environment earning a national reputation,” Crippen said.