Dan Huntington, general manger for Brookings Health System’s food service, on left, talks with chef manager Matt Pasco in the hospital kitchen Friday. Huntington said when he graduated from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school 11 years ago, he never thought he’d end up working in a hospital setting. Photo by Charis Prunty/Register
• Le Cordon Bleu graduate heads up food service at Brookings Health System
BROOKINGS – Two years into a nursing degree, Dan Huntington decided he was on the wrong career path.
So, after first earning a mortuary science degree and working six years as a licensed funeral director, he began studying at Le Cordon Bleu culinary institute in Minneapolis.
Huntington expected that was the end of his career in the medical world.
“When I was in culinary school, I had never really pictured myself as wanting to do institutional food service,” he said. “I was this fancy, trained French chef – I was above that, I was better than that, why would I ever want to work at a hospital or anything like that?”
Huntington, 36, graduated top of his class from Le Cordon Bleu in 2001. Now he is general manager of Brookings Health System’s food service program, which provides room service and cafeteria meals for the hospital, as well as meals for Brookview Manor nursing home and Brookhaven Estates independent living community and catering services.
Le Cordon Bleu, a well-known French culinary school from which Julia Childs was the first female graduate, now has 16 U.S. campuses, 12 international campuses and an online route. During his 18 months of study, Huntington was trained in classical French technique by chefs from all over the world. The schools accept a new class of 35-40 students every six weeks.
Though his degree was mortuary science, Huntington had quite a bit of experience heading into his culinary training.
“I started when I was 14: I worked at McDonalds,” he said. “But then I worked at a couple mom-and-pop restaurants and so forth during high school (as a cook).”
He was born in Scotland, S.D., but grew up in the Indianapolis area. The Cow Palace, a family-style restaurant in Indiana, was one of his early cooking jobs. During culinary school, he cooked at The Olive Garden, and a list of other restaurant jobs came later.
The ritziest was at Word of Life Inn in Schroon Lake, N.Y. Huntington was manager there for three years. But it was after this job that he decided to take a step out of the restaurant business.
“I’ve got three young kids and, in the restaurant business, I would probably not see them very much. Because a lot of restaurants, you’re busy until 11 o’clock or midnight and then, it’s not conducive to a family life,” he said.
Time for family
He took a job as food service production manager for CVPH Medical Center in Plattsburgh, N.Y., a facility of more than 321 beds compared to the 49 in the Brookings hospital. The schedule was better than restaurants, but the Huntington kids were still a long way from their grandparents. Dan and his wife, Jennifer, have daughters Abby, 12, and Hailey, 9, and son Elliot, 6. So, just over three years ago, Dan took the job in Brookings.
As general manager, he oversees about 35 employees and works closely with Chef Manager Matt Pasco. Pasco, who attended the Art Institute in Los Angeles, is more hands-on with checking for food production and quality, and working to lower costs. Huntington, on the other hand, rarely dons his chef’s coat anymore.
“I don’t really do much cooking at all here. I’m more of a management role,” he said. “Basically, I’m in charge of anything food-related.”
Huntington and Pasco are both employees of food service company Sodexo, while the rest of their staff is employed directly by Brookings Health System.
Huntington develops menus, then he works with dietician Katy VanderWal to make sure the dishes are nutritionally adequate and determine which patient diets they are suitable for.
Huntington said hospital food “gets a bad rap,” despite big improvements over the years. He came soon after a room service menu was introduced at the Brookings hospital, which gives patients good selection and is backed by prompt service.
“They have a menu in their room – think of at a hotel,” Huntington said. “Whenever they’re hungry, they can call down on the phone, order off their menu whatever they want to eat that day and the cooks make the food fresh to order. And, we try and get it to them within about a half-hour after they order, and deliver it right to their room.”
Of course, certain foods are still off limits to patients with certain conditions, he added (a cardiac patient probably wouldn’t be allowed alfredo sauce, for instance). But partitioned trays that remind patients of their former school cafeteria – where mixed peas and carrots, applesauce, Jell-O and the other stereotypical “hospital foods” are served – are no longer used here. It’s all “more like normal food,” Huntington said.
“We cook the food fresh to order, and we offer them whatever they want – if they order a pork chop or something like that, we offer them the side dish: Potatoes and vegetables and stuff, and it all goes on a plate; we don’t use the partitioned cafeteria trays,” he said.
Feedback on the food and room service has been good, Huntington said. He recently changed the room service menu to remove unpopular items. The cafeteria menu will soon be changing as well, when Brookings Health System builds its new nursing home. That facility will have its own kitchens, he said, and the current menu will be used there while a new Sodexo menu is used for the rest of the health system.
The menu still includes mainly “meat and potatoes” style foods, Huntington said. You won’t see a lot of “foofy” items in the hospital cafeteria, though the chefs certainly know how to make them.
“Honestly, we’re a meat and potatoes country, and a lot of the stuff that I would like to do, nobody would try it,” he said. “We could do a ton more than we do, but people are very set in their ways.”
Keeping skills sharp
Since his job is oversight now, Huntington works to keep up his cooking skills elsewhere. While he said Jennifer does the majority of cooking for their family because of their schedules, he does sometimes create meal at home. The family also keeps a huge garden and raises its own animals to eat. Huntington butchers them himself, inside a big walk-in cooler he built.
“I learned how to do that in culinary school – break down pigs and cows and so forth into recognizable parts you would get at a grocery store,” he said.
He also sometimes teaches cooking classes at Brookings’ Hy-Vee, where he selects the menu and helps participants cook a full meal for themselves.
“That’s kind of an outlet for me to educate and get people involved, and have a little fun,” he said. “I tell people it’s the best-kept secret in Brookings because it’s 10 bucks and you get a full meal, and it’s an hour or two of entertainment.”
Learn more about cooking classes taught by Huntington and other local chefs on the calendar of events at www.hy-vee.com/stores/Detail.aspx?s=17.
Contact Charis Prunty at email@example.com.