By Amy Eddings
Standing in the huge kitchen at Lima Memorial Health System’s hospital, in the landlocked city of Lima, Chef Bob Arnold is a long way from Nantucket, where he grew up. He’s also a long way from the Downyflake, the little diner on that New England island where he learned to cook.
“It was owned by an old Norwegian sea cook who chain-smoked Salems. We kept the eggs outside of the refrigerator, back when I started in the business,” said the 55-year-old Arnold, whose years in Washington, D.C. and Columbus, appear to have worn away any trace of New England in his speech. “I started at 12 as a dishwasher.”
Within weeks, he was put on the meat griddle with Dan the Egg Man, “who used cast iron skillets and cracked every egg to order, no matter how busy it got,” he said, awe still in his voice all these years later.
By the end of the summer, Arnold was working the third shift in the bake shop. He made blueberry muffins crusted with sugar, chocolate-frosted doughnuts, cinnamon twists laced with a powdered sugar glaze and Portuguese sweet bread.
It feels, Arnold said, like a lifetime ago, especially now that he works at a health care facility.
“It’s a different style of cooking, by all means,” he said of his transition to health-conscious menus. “There’s no more heavy cream, no more real butter. I was never a big fan of salt, so that wasn’t too bad.”
Arnold became executive chef at Lima Memorial in 2014. A year earlier, he had closed his restaurant, Robert’s On Miami, in Urbana, after a nine-year run. He’s worked as the pastry chef and executive sous chef at the Great Southern Hotel in Columbus, “my big break.” He spent four years at the Sheraton Washington Hotel in Washington, D.C., an enormous property, he said, “with 1,505 rooms, a banquet hall for 3,000, a separate kosher kitchen and a ballroom off of that that seated 1,000.” Before that, he got his official culinary training at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I.
He said he took the job cooking for a major institution because it was “the only gig I hadn’t done.”
Hospital food has a reputation for being bland and boring, but Arnold said the food at Lima Memorial, operated by the facilities management company Sodexo, is anything but. On the cafeteria menu on a recent weekday afternoon, there was blueberry barbecue pork loin, carved to order, and a “hot gazpacho dish” of tomato, cucumber, bell pepper and garlic that Arnold sautéed for a customer as she waited.
He said there are about 20 different menus for patients, based on their dietary needs. Low salt for the heart patients. No seeds for those with renal problems.
“We make the most wholesome product within dietary guidelines,” he said.
Near the ovens, a woman prepared pans for little carrot bundt cakes. They weren’t for the cafeteria diners. They were for the patients.
“It’s cut with applesauce, so you’re cutting down on sugar and oil,” said Arnold.
Patients order breakfast, lunch and dinner when they want it, just like they were ordering room service at a hotel. And that’s exactly the impression the receptionists in the dining service want to convey.
“Thank you for calling room service, my name is Troyce, may I help you?” said Troyce Cowan. Her caller’s name, room number and doctor-prescribed diet flashes before her on a screen. This person is on a low-sodium diet. Cowan talks the caller through her options.
“Now, the large chef’s salad is going to put you over for sodium,” she said, looking at a running tally of the patient’s dietary benchmarks. “You want to do a small one instead? With the raspberry vinaigrette?”
On this day, there are 70 patients in the hospital. That’s 210 meals. They’re timed from the moment the order is taken to when they leave the kitchen on delivery carts. They are to reach the patient within 45 minutes. Arnold said most patients get their food in 25. Special heating units under the plates keep hot meals hot.
“Part of the reason why they hired a chef like me is that they want more of that restaurant feel, more hands-on kinds of food for the patients,” said Arnold.
He said his clientele at Lima Memorial Health System have noticed. Cafeteria business is booming. In each of the first three months of 2016, the number of customers has increased by between 1,600 and 2,400, according to Arnold. And meals are getting excellent marks on patient satisfaction surveys, he said.
“The one failed grade I got was from someone who had to throw out their dinner because they didn’t get any utensils,” noted Arnold. “They didn’t get a chance to eat!”
BLUEBERRY PORK LOIN:
3-4 pound pork loin
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
Montreal Steak Seasoning
2 cups frozen blueberries
2 cups prepared barbecue sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Rub the pork loin with the olive oil, vinegar, chili powder and cumin. Sprinkle top with steak seasoning. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake to at least 155 F internal temperature of the pork, about 20-30 minutes.
In a 1.5-quart saucepan, combine blueberries, barbecue sauce and brown sugar. Heat over low heat until sauce simmers, gently reduce for 20 minutes.
Remove pork from oven, allowing it to rest 15-20 minutes before carving. Carve pork, plate and lace with blueberry barbecue sauce.
DOWNYFLAKE CRANBERRY ORANGE BREAD
Yield: 4 9-by-4 loaf pans
2 pounds granulated sugar
5 ounces butter or margarine
5 large eggs
6 ounces orange juice
10 ounces cool water
2 pounds, 6 ounces all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
24 ounces cranberries
4 ounces walnuts, optional
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Cream sugar and butter until fluffy. Incorporate eggs into creamed butter. Add orange juice and water.
In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, then fold into the first mixture. Fold cranberries and walnuts into mixture.
Place in greased and floured loaf pans. Bake 45-50 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
SAUTéED CHICKEN BREAST WITH MANGO PINEAPPLE CHUTNEY
Four 4- to 6-ounce boneless chicken breasts
Major Grey Chutney (available in condiment aisle of most grocery stores)
Fresh pineapple, diced
Preheat oven to 325 F.
Lightly pound the chicken breasts.
Combine flour, salt and pepper together in a dish. Dredge chicken in flour mixture.
Brown chicken lightly in skillet on top of range. Place skillet in oven for 10-15 minutes to finish.
In the meantime, open the chutney and add pineapple to it. Spoon over cooked chicken and finish in oven for 2 minutes to warm chutney.