Hospital food isn't what most people associate with haute cuisine, but one chef in North Carolina is trying to change that—and he won a grand prize competing against restaurant chefs as proof.
Ryan Conklin, executive chef at 660-bed Rex Hospital in Raleigh, N.C., earned the top honor in the “Got to Be NC” dining competition for the Triangle region,which attracted 16 teams. In addition to the $2,000 cash prize, he will compete against the winners from the Charlotte and Triad regions in an October finale.
The competition requires chefs to prepare three dishes using local ingredients that are revealed only on the day of the event. Chefs Steve Pexton and Collin Jennings also were part of the Rex Hospital team.
Conklin trained at the Culinary Institute of America and left the hotel restaurant industry for a better lifestyle. “My career kind of blossomed from that,” said Conklin, who has managed food service at Rex for 11 years. “Healthcare is really an untapped market.”
Rex was one of the first hospitals in the South to remove deep fryers from its kitchens, Conklin recalls. But rather than limiting the kitchen staff, the move forced them to think more creatively. Marinated and grilled zucchini replaced french fries; pesto-grilled salmon replaced fried fish.
“We've established here at Rex a true food culture,” Conklin said. “We understand that we have a sandbox to play in, but it has to meet certain clinical guidelines.”
Conklin, who writes the “ 'New School' Hospital Food” blog, applied for a spot in the competition after serving as a judge last year. The October finale will allow him to compete for $4,000 and a trip to the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in Napa Valley, Calif.
And bragging rights, of course. “How special would it be if a hospital chef won this competition?” Conklin said.
Follow Outliers on Twitter: @MHOutliers