Raising Cain for healthy hospital eating

They’re rolling out the fine bone china at Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow but it’s not for some upcoming fancy fundraiser. It’s for the people who really matter — the hospital patients. No more coffee in plastic cups either, because from now on coffee will be served bedside in real china cups. 

These initiatives and many more besides are the brainchildren of Andrew Cain, regional executive chef for dining services at Phelps and at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, Cain earned his stripes at Michelin-starred restaurants such as Michael Mina in Manhattan, The French Laundry in Yountville, California, and most recently at the prestigious Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa in California. 

But after 16 years in wine country, the Maryland native was ready for a change, not least because he wanted his children to be closer to their grandparents back east. So, he followed his mentor, the celebrated French-born chef, Bruno Tison, to Northwell Health (which runs 23 hospitals in Westchester County, Manhattan, Long Island and Staten Island), to help revolutionize what health-care catering is all about. 

Now, at the two hospitals, Cain is revamping buying and ordering and generally bringing in “resort” practices. This means food on demand, room service by another name, which means eating when you want to, rather than when the administration dictates you should. Patients will have discussed their options in advance or else can call down to place an order, with a full menu served between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. 

The quality of the food has skyrocketed. Homemade buttermilk pancakes are now made in-house. “We can serve two pancakes now for breakfast, whereas previously, when the pancake mix came out of the box and was packed with salt, we were only able to serve one.” And local produce matters. Generic maple syrup, which previously was ladled out of industrial-sized vats, has given way to Hudson Valley maple syrup, more work since it needs to be portioned out individually, but far healthier and, perhaps just as important, better tasting. 

The hospitals have scrapped low-cost, “shelf stable” orange juice and now use only Tropicana. And they crack real eggs — no powder or substitute here — and high-quality eggs to boot, and cook them to order in a pan, not on the fat-happy griddle. All vegetables are fresh and more “plant-forward” meals will soon be finding their way on to the menu. Artisanal breads come from Amy’s Bread in New York City, which supplies many top restaurants.

Cain and his team are moving, too, to eliminate frozen and canned foods. Fish — he offers cod as an example — is line-caught and sustainable. As for chicken, Northwell is now the biggest single buyer of fresh, antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken from Purdue on the East Coast. 

“Healthy, nutritious and sustainable,” are the watchwords Cain keeps coming back to. And it’s not just patients who are enjoying the benefit of the new regime, where fat fryers have been banned and sodas are most definitely off the menu. (Bring on the fresh juices and the wheat germ.). The philosophy extends to Phelps’ cafeteria, which sells up to 700 nutritious meals every day to hospital visitors. “Plus, we do great food for our colleagues,” Cain says proudly, a boast supported by the story of Russ Ficke, a chef manager at another of Northwell’s hospitals, North Shore Syosset, who lost 50 pounds through simple exercise and healthy eating. The slick video of Ficke’s transformational journey plays on a loop on a plasma screen in the lobby of Phelps’ main entrance.

Menus at Phelps will change regularly with the seasons, no small task when you’re catering for 20 different types of diet. They’re on trend, as well, with avocado toast being introduced shortly — it’s already on the menu at Northern Westchester, Phelps’ sister hospital — while there is definitely no sense of preachiness in the double cheese “maternity burger,” from Phelps’ dedicated maternity menu, offered to just-delivered moms, in all likelihood craving what they have not been allowed to eat in the preceding months.

As charming and modest a chef as you will ever hope to meet, Cain is not above clearing a couple of dirty cups from a table or bending down to pick up an empty granola bar wrapper from the floor as we walk through the hospital cafeteria on my hospital tour.

The benefits don’t end when patients are discharged. Phelps holds cooking classes for different patient groups who work with dieticians, learning better eating habits to take home and even an actual recipe, a kind of after-sales service if you like.

The local demographic is also considered, with Mexican, Latin American and some Caribbean dishes finding their way on to the menu. “Curry coming soon,” Cain says.

Phelps FARMacy, meanwhile, is a gardening initiative to promote wellness and community-building through education and access to healthy food, operating on a volunteer basis to help the undernourished.

But at the end of the day, it’s not only about the food and healthy eating. It’s more of a holistic, feel-good, be good to the environment and be good to yourself philosophy. For instance, Cain has mandated the removal of all Styrofoam and plastic straws from the facility. Even plastic aprons have been given the heave-ho, to be replaced with restaurant-style, natural fiber aprons. 

“They’re better for the environment and better for morale,” the chef says. 

“And besides,” he adds with a smile, “it’s always nice to be well-dressed.”

For more, visit nwhc.net and phelpshospital.org.

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