By Danny Turner
My recipe for a successful theme meal at Meritus Medical Center had three essential ingredients: teamwork, planning, and fun! When the executive chef at Meritus told my internship partner and me that we had total control over planning and executing a theme meal, I knew it would go well when my partner and I had the same first thought: chili cook-off. It was going to be a lot of work with many moving parts, and neither of us had organized a food service event like this before, especially not at this scale. We had a month and a half to prepare. Thankfully for us, we would have the help of the entire food service department. They routinely make and provide food for Meritus’ hundreds of employees and visitors every day, and were more than willing to help us carry out the task ahead of us.
The first step was fleshing out our idea and choosing several recipes to test. Since it was meant to be a cook-off, we decided we would sell 3 small portions of different chilis along with two kinds of cornbread, and distribute a survey as a means of selecting a winner. We spent a day researching recipes online, picking several that seemed interesting to us. The woman in charge of inventory and ordering then helped us place small orders of the special ingredients not normally stocked in the kitchen that we would need for recipe testing. She also showed us around the storage areas to help us find the other ingredients we would need. We saw how all foods and ingredients are stored to align with health code regulations, and how refrigerator temperatures are monitored and recorded regularly.
We spent all of the next week cooking. In total we tested seven chili and four cornbread recipes. The catering cook showed us how to use the industrial kitchen equipment, and helped us distribute samples of each recipe to as many employees as possible for some first-round feedback. We settled on a creamy chicken queso, a spicy short rib, and a chickpea and sweet potato vegetarian chili. On the side we would have jalapeno cheddar cornbread and sweet honey cornbread. Now that we had our recipes, we needed to plan the event itself, create marketing materials, and analyze the recipes for nutrition info and cost.
We used a nutrient analysis program that the hospital provided to accurately calculate the nutrition info of each recipe. That information was then sent to corporate communications who put together marketing materials to advertise the cook-off, with input from me and my partner. The front-of-house manager then walked us through pricing our recipes with US Foods purchasing software, and the chef helped us estimate how much food we would need to scale up the recipes in order to sell as much as possible without overstocking and wasting ingredients. We negotiated with kitchen staff and front-of-house employees to get help cooking and serving for the event. It wasn’t too hard to get some staff to chip-in, especially when we offered to cook a little extra for those willing to help. The food service director was even willing to take over making our cornbread during lunch service!
The day of the event finally came, and because we had put in all of the necessary work, and had the expert guidance of the food service department, we were well prepared. The cook-off was a hit! We sold out just as lunch service came to a close, and the surveys were overwhelmingly very positive. We weren’t too surprised to see the chicken queso chili and honey cornbread take first place, but we were thrilled to hear how much people had enjoyed the event. Many people even said they wanted to see our recipes introduced into the regular rotating menu! By teaming up with the foodservice staff and planning, my partner and I were able to make a fun and successful event, and I know I came away from it with a much better understanding of the amount of work necessary to run a large-scale food service operation in a hospital.