The Birth of a Meal: How Does JPS Feed Hundreds of Patients, Team Members and Visitors Each Day?

August 2nd, 2018

The goal is to see the patient’s eyes light up with excitement when the cover is pulled from their dinner plate to reveal a home-style meal.

Unlike that meal you make in your own kitchen, however, a feast at JPS Health Network isn’t whipped up by mom or dad in an hour between the time they get home from work and when plates hit the table. Making meals on that scale requires a crew of 22 cooks and four stockroom team members who stay busy for about 14 hours a day. Together, they put three square meals in front of the patients who fill JPS Health Network’s 578 beds – plus they feed breakfast and lunch to team members and visitors that fill its bustling cafeteria.

“It’s a complicated process and it takes a lot of people to get the job done,” said JPS Executive Chef Chris Gilbert. “But we have a great team and everyone knows how to handle their role. It’s amazing to watch it all come together.”

How it All Comes Together

JPS Health Network Nutritional Services Cook II Jose Romero prepares lunch on Friday, July 27, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. (Kevin Fujii/JPS Health Network)

JPS Health Network Nutritional Services Cook II Jose Romero prepares lunch on Friday, July 27, 2018, in Fort Worth, Texas. (Kevin Fujii/JPS Health Network)

Today’s dinner has actually been in the works for several days before it is served. The process starts when supplies are ordered each week. It takes three tractor-trailer trucks filled with meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, bread, condiments, spices -- plus just about any other ingredient you could imagine -- to deliver what’s needed for a week of meals. The JPS kitchen’s grocery bill adds up to about $3.2 million a year. It would be a lot more, but a tremendous amount of money is saved by buying in bulk.

Once the supplies are in the house, cooks fill out requisition forms a day in advance for all the things they need to prepare meals and the fixings are put together on carts by the storeroom crew. All preparation -- including marinating meat and seasoning vegetables -- is taken care of at that time so everything is ready “to be fired” on the stove or in the oven the next day.

JPS has state-of the-art cookers that can smoke, broil, steam or roast food all in the same container. That allows for favorites that are unusual to a large volume food service -- such as barbecued ribs or chicken quarters -- to be served up just like the patients were attending a back yard barbecue. It makes one of the most popular dishes with patients, roast turkey with cornbread stuffing, possible because 35 whole turkey breasts can be cooked at one time. Meanwhile, soups, vegetables, deserts and sides are being prepared all around the massive kitchen.

“We’re extremely fortunate to have a very talented group,” Gilbert said. “We have excellent sous chefs and cooks who make it seem easy to bring things together.”

A Day in the JPS Kitchen:

  • 5 a.m. – The cooks start to arrive. They turn on the ovens and pull food out of coolers to start making breakfast. They’ll cook 20-30 pans of bacon or sausage and about 30 containers of scrambled eggs which hold about two pounds of eggs each.
  • 6:45 a.m. – Breakfast tray line service begins. Team members assemble plates of food and place them on pellets – a portable warming system which can hold temperatures of up to 300 degrees. Covered in a plastic coating to keep patients from being burned, a pellet working in conjunction with a plate cover can keep food piping hot for 45 minutes while trays are loaded onto carts and delivered to the rooms of patients.
  • 8:45 a.m. – Breakfast service is over and the process of recovering trays, plates, glasses, pellets, covers and silverware beings. By 9 a.m. items start to arrive back in the dishwashing area where they’re cleaned and dried to be ready in about an hour to return to duty for lunch.
  • 9:45 a.m. – While part of the staff is wrapping up breakfast another crew has begun making lunch for the JPS cafeteria while simultaneously getting ready for the evening dinner service. They’re making soup and preparing items for daily specials.
  • 10:30 a.m. – It’s time to get lunch moving. While breakfast was being wrapped up, midday meal preparation for patients has started and now those meals are ready to hit plates and be put on carts for service that runs from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. Meanwhile, the dinner crew is tallying up orders for the evening entrees and deciding how much food needs to be prepared.
  • 12:45 p.m. – The morning kitchen crew is ready to call it a day. Its members clean up their stations and check out, making more room for the afternoon cooks.
  • 3:45 p.m. – The assembly of the dinner that has been in planning for days begins on plates in the tray line.
  • 6:45 p.m. – Nearly 14 hours after the day of work began, the dishes are put away, the kitchen is clean and it’s time to close for the night. Ingredients for the next day of meals stand at the ready, waiting for the morning crew to arrive and start the whole process over again.

Planning for Everything

While the kitchen team tries to keep everything running like a well-oiled machine, sometimes things come up that test their skills.

“It’s important that we plan in advance as much as possible for any issues that could come up,” Gilbert said. “People are going to call in sick from time to time or they’re going to take a vacation, so we need to have a plan on how to cover their responsibilities. People are counting on us to come through, so there aren’t any excuses. We also have to keep a close watch on the stock because we can’t just run to the grocery store if we don’t have something we need. Everything has to happen when it is supposed to happen.”

While day to day issues can pop up, Gilbert said his biggest concern is a potential power outage because it something that can’t be planned for or controlled. Even if there is gas to run the ovens, the kitchen can’t operate without electricity because, without the ventilation and air conditioning system working, heat from stoves and ovens would set off the hospital’s fire suppression system.

Gilbert, who worked in the restaurant field and in catering before he joined JPS, said he loves his job because he feels like he is contributing to the cause of making patients healthier and happier.

“I love talking to patients and hearing that their meal brightened their day,” Gilbert explained. “The letters we get and the compliments are so touching. They’re what keep me coming back every morning.”

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