Hospital food " it’s not a bad joke in Aspen |

Hospital food " it’s not a bad joke in Aspen

Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

Hospital food.

There is scarcely a more derogatory term to describe a meal prepared in a institutional kitchen and set before a hopeful diner.

In fact, institutional food in general around the United States is viewed at best as a national bad joke or, at the worst, a nutritional black hole and an insult to consumers.

That is basically true whether one is thinking of hospitals, jail, schools or other places where the customers have little choice and the purveyors seem to have little incentive for excellence.

But it is not true in Aspen.

“It used to be that we had a rotating menu, and every week you had the same dishes rotating,” said hospital staffer Julie Puchkoff. She has worked at AVH for a decade and was hesitant to state her feelings about the food that historically has been served.

“This [the food on the modern menu] is so much more imaginative, it’s really so much better,” she finally declared.

Hospital patients and the staffers who serve their needs; jail inmates and the turnkeys who watch over them; high school students and their teachers; and recovering drunks and drug addicts ” in Aspen, they all get to eat food that, according to some, often tastes as good as anything served up in the high-class restaurants downtown.

Menus list such items as almond-crusted pork tenderloin with cranberry apple conserve, Cornish game hen, whole-wheat pasta with pesto, shrimp jambalaya and other relatively exotic foods, as well as the standard burgers, steak and chicken, with desserts to match ” lemon strawberry ribbon pie, lemon meringue, baklava and apple dumplings.

And price is at least as important as quality in this story.

At Aspen Valley Hospital, Chef Jeff Spiroff and four other highly trained chefs crank out a daily diet of high-quality provender under the direction of Michelle Maccarrone, director of food services. A little more than $5 nets a full entree with meats (except for vegetarians, who get their own special dishes), grains, vegetables and a dessert.

According to hospital spokeswoman Ginny Dyche, the cafeteria expects annual revenues of about $350,000 for the food services, including payments from the Pitkin County Jail and other outside customers.

According to Dyche and AVH Finance Officer Terry Collins, the hospital expects to spend roughly $1.2 million on all food-service related programs this year, which they said includes much more than simply the cafeteria operations. Other functions included within that amount are meals served to inpatients and outpatients, patient consultations with dietitians and meals served to same-day surgery patients.

But the hospital kitchen isn’t the only place where “Chef Jeff” works his magic.

Over at the Aspen High School lunchroom, kids get a surprisingly good lunch for even less ” $4.75 for the basic entree, with variable pricing for à la carte offerings or items from the grill. The school district pays nothing for Spiroff’s services, beyond his use of the kitchen facilities for his private catering business.

“It’s a great tradeoff for both sides,” said Bill Anuszewski, finance director for the school district.

The inmates at the Pitkin County Jail get the same fare as the staff and patients at the hospital every day, but without all the choices. They also get the food for free ” unless one counts incarceration as a kind of payment.

Don Bird, the jail director, said the county expects to spend about $128,000 for inmate meals in 2007, based on estimates derived from previous years ” a figure that could change once the actual numbers are known at the end of the year.

The same is true for the individuals who make use of the services of The Right Door, an addiction-recovery facility that also provides shelter for a small number of local homeless people. It is headquartered in the Schultz Health and Human Services building adjacent to the hospital, and operations director Mike Seery said the hospital generally serves only two or three of The Right Door’s clients at any given mealtime.

Plus, a number of the workers at the agencies housed in the HHS building also treks across the intervening parking lots to buy lunch and more.

The menu for November at Aspen Valley Hospital is a direct reflection of a conscious effort to improve the quality of ingredients used in making the food, not to mention the food’s appeal to those who eat it.

Michelle Maccarrone, director of food services for the hospital, has been on the job since January, and she earns high marks from everyone from employees to outsiders who now regularly eat at the AVH cafeteria. Some even occasionally can be seen carrying “to-go” containers away in the evening, heading home with a ready-to-eat meal for the family.

Maccarrone first came to work at the hospital in late 2006 but has been in charge of food services since January. A clinical dietitian by training and education, she is a state-certified holder of degrees from New Mexico State University and Colorado State University. Her internship, she said, was at Cornell University, where she combined classwork with actual service at hospitals and other sites.

“My general approach is, whole foods,” she declared simply. “I try to promote balanced nutrition.”

She buys Colorado-grown food and chooses organic products when possible. When that is not possible, she said, she prefers the food be “minimally processed … so we try to start from scratch if we can” in preparing meals. Her kitchen uses whole-grain pasta and quinoa (a high-protein South American grain), bulgur wheat and barley in soups, whole-wheat pizza dough, and “healthy fats” such as olive oil and canola oil.

In summer, the kitchen will prepare Gazpacho soup from fresh produce bought at the Aspen Saturday Market. Hamburgers are made from Coleman natural beef patties or Great Range buffalo meat.

Buns, bread and baked goods come either from Louis Swiss Bakery or Orowheat, a 100 percent whole-wheat national brand, and Maccarrone is hoping to strike up a deal with Rudi’s, an organic bakery in Boulder, Colo.

“It is a journey that we’re on,” she said. “You don’t change everything overnight.”

Although reluctant to criticize her predecessors, Maccarrone admitted, “We used to think, if it was sold in a grocery store, it’s OK to eat it.” But that thinking has changed.

She said she is allowed considerable autonomy to change the menus, the ingredients and the staff, as long as she stays within the hospital administration’s budgetary expectations.

In addition to careful attention to the ingredients and the preparation of the food, Maccarrone also has carefully selected her cooks ” aside from Chef Jeff, she has four highly trained chefs working shifts in the kitchen. There is Kevin Doss, former executive chef from the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs; Sam Oster, former sous chef from the Snowmass Club; Gilberto Andrade, trained at The Little Nell; and Alex Zacarias, trained at the St. Regis.

At the high school, Chef Jeff has instituted a similar culinary revolution, specializing in salads made with fresh ingredients, organic if he can get them.

Kids are greeted with menus listing Asian chicken salad with Chinese cabbage, bean sprouts, shitake mushrooms and Vietnamese dressing; grilled asparagus with fresh orange, red onion batons and tabouleh; or chicken Caesar with parmesan croutons.

“I basically lose money on them,” he said of the salads, “but it keeps the kids here and making healthy choices.”

The salads, he explained, are priced at $4, compared to the $9 or more they would command at a restaurant in town, and “some of the salads are stuff I’d [eat] at Jimmy’s,” a well-known Aspen eatery.

Referring to his double duty, working at the hospital and the school, Spiroff said, “Everybody’s willing to pay a little more, because they’re getting better food.” He said he started coming up with innovative, healthier menus even before Maccarrone arrived, adding that it has only gotten better since she came.

In general, he said, “Some hospitals brag about how they’re getting McDonald’s. They do not have a deep-fat fryer back there [pointing toward the hospital kitchen]. She’s gradually pushing us toward healthier eating habits here.”

A random survey of hospital staffers, Schultz HHS workers, jail inmates and others yielded fairly universal praise of the institutional food available in Aspen.

Cheryl Hannah, a 29-year veteran at the hospital, said the food service has been “good and bad over the years. This is by far one of the best.” Her assessment is based on the range of choices on the menus, the new recipes, the quality of the ingredients and the seasonal changes to the kinds of foods offered, she said.

“We’ve had years when I would bring Lean Cuisine from home because I didn’t like what they were fixing here,” she recalled.

“I eat there all the time,” said Kristen Stroud, who recently moved from Kentucky and is working in an office at the HHS building. “It’s good food, it really is, especially coming from Kentucky. Back home, everybody makes fun of hospital food. Usually, it’s, like, convenience store sandwiches or week-old hot dogs ” mystery meat.”

But the AVH cafeteria, she said, is “one of my favorite places. Where else could you get a really well-cooked salmon for five bucks? You can’t.”

At the jail, the inmates give the hospital’s meals a unified “A” for quality, particularly when comparing it to other jails they’ve been in.

“The food here is great, but the food in other jails … ,” remarked a female inmate, who declined to give her name. “And the desserts are incredible.”

John Colson’s e-mail address is

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