Feeding the Soul: what happens when hospitals go gourmet

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All photos by Cori Baker

A self-taught artist in the kitchen, Chef Tony Robles has cooked with the best of them. In his days at Star Canyon Restaurant, he trained under one of Dallas’ most renowned chefs, Stephan Pyles, and has racked up numerous awards not only for his cooking but how he runs a kitchen. He’s a self-professed soup master with an earth-shattering black bean soup recipe. Every day, he goes into work and prepares fresh made-to-order masterpieces with an eye for color and flair.

But Chef Tony has left the restaurant business in favor of sauteing the same high quality cuisine at Texas Health Center for Diagnostics & Surgery (THCDS) in Plano, where since 2005, he has served thousands of patients and doctors.

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“Hospitals are [traditionally] structured around time,” Chef Tony tells me. “But as time and medicine has evolved, expectations for patients has evolved too.” Rather than following a strict schedule, a patient can call down to the kitchen and place an order whenever they want. Every day Chef Tony provides a different menu to browse, a Mediterranean bent one day, a Southwest squint or a French twist the next. Are you on a broth diet? Gluten-free? Vegan? Picky? Chef Tony easily veers off menu, doing “everything he can” to cater to each patient’s individual needs. He’s weathered stormy chefs and he has an unshakeable sense of chilled-out that translates into his food.

“I judge the weather and what’s seasonal. I try to throw in a little comfort food and offer some variety.” He describes his menu in terms of whimsy, a little of this, a little of that. He let me sample some of the most popular dishes. Flamboyant mushroom enchiladas arrive smothered in a deep red roasted salsa, pico and corn. Even plastic silverware cuts effortlessly through a grilled beef tenderloin and yukon potatoes soaked in a port demi-glace that whispers of mushroom and shallots—clearly simmered from scratch. A generous cut of blackened salmon with herb oil arrives with a blanket of grilled pineapple salsa, just sweet enough to add tropical color. Even the steamed vegetables on the side are tenderly seasoned, not the bland, mushy microwave taste that’s usually inevitable on hospital plates. Each meal comes with a drink, dinner roll and a side salad with a choice of dressing.

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“We find that people heal faster when their nutritional needs are met,” Chef Tony explains. “It makes a big difference, having fresh thyme, rosemary, basil, shallots. As soon as they place the order, we cook it. It’s a good quality product for the patient.” The crowning glory might be the breakfast menu—available all day long. Or perhaps it’s the three dozen fresh cookies that Chef Tony whips up every afternoon for families in the waiting room—or the lemon cake with raspberry cheesecake filling with a staircase of whipped cream and berries on the side.

“It’s a mindset,” Chef Tony says. “We want to make a connection through food and make people feel comfortable.” Patients undergoing or recovering from surgery are already stressed. Often their senses are blanketed with medication. They may not have huge appetites, especially considering that hospital food used to resemble cooked socks. But, if they’re presented with their choice of an entree, which smells mouth-watering and is full of color, they’re more likely to get the nutrition they need.

“They like Mexican the best, I think,” Chef Tony lets on. “I make a mean black bean soup.” The most popular day is quesadilla day. “I have a guy who makes the best salsa. We sell out of that.”  

After a life in the slice ‘em dice ‘em world of Executive Chef-hood, Chef Tony has found a healthier lifestyle as well. After years of 20-hour days and falling into bed at 2 a.m., he’s enjoying a slower pace and better quality of life. He seems to be at peace in his kitchen, free to be creative and tinker with dishes until he’s gotten it exactly right. “I sleep like a baby at night,” he says proudly. “No stress and with this feeling that I’ve done something good.”

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