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The Dish: JJ Layton, executive chef at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, talks cooking hospital food for thousands

Imagine cooking for more than 4,000 people each day. For most of us, it's hard enough just getting lunch boxes packed and a family meal on the dinner table every night.

But JJ Layton, executive chef at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, has experience cooking and preparing thousands of meals for people of all ages — from toddlers to grandparents of multiple cultural and ethnic backgrounds, with widely differing taste preferences and food traditions and a variety of food allergies and dietary restrictions. That's what he and his team of 30 cooks, plus a small army of support staff, face each day when they come to work.

Layton and his team feed people at the main St. Joseph's hospital, St. Joseph's Children's Hospital, St. Joseph's Hospital Behavioral Health Center, Seasons Café (where most visitors and employees eat) and the doctor's lounge. They also fulfill any in-house catering needs for meetings and events. That's food for almost 30,000 people each week.

Layton took over as executive chef at St. Joe's in October after searching for a job that was more conducive to raising a family. At 36, he has put in almost 20 years in professional kitchens, but it wasn't his original career path. Layton started out studying sociology at the University of Florida. In need of some spending money, he took a part-time job as dishwasher at a family-style restaurant in Gainesville. It didn't take long before he was drafted to help with food prep and eventually with cooking.

"I ran through all the different stations in the kitchen and always wanted to learn more," said Layton, who now lives in Brandon with his wife and their 4-year-old daughter. "I fell in love with the whole system of it all. So, I left UF and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu (College of Culinary Arts) in Orlando."

We caught up with Layton by phone recently during a pause between lunch and dinner service.

Why is it that hospital food — the meals that arrive on trays at the bedside three times a day — has such a bad reputation?

At the hospital, food is medicine. It's part of the prescription to get patients well again and the meals must be doctor approved. So, that usually means lowering fat, restricting sodium and sometimes controlling calories. But the thing I hear about almost every day is most patients aren't happy when they can't reach for the salt shaker. To make up for that, it takes creativity with herbs, spices, citrus, olive oil instead of butter, skim not whole milk, sometimes plant-based proteins. We try very hard to make the food healthy, yet enjoyable.

What foods are in highest demand at the hospital?

Comfort foods. We make 200 gallons of chicken noodle soup each week, that's about 4,000 servings. Mac and cheese — we make 1,000 pounds of that a week. Grilled cheese is also very popular. In the Seasons Café, the main dining area, we serve 500 slices of pizza every day, fresh out of a brick oven.

Do you cook from scratch or do you rely on convenience foods?

About 75 percent of what we serve is made in-house. We make the chicken noodle soup and the mac and cheese, for example. We don't cut our own french fries or bake our own bread, but we do get as much as we can from local purveyors, including breads and the desserts served in the cafe. But desserts for the patients — cakes, mousses, parfaits — are all made in-house. We buy the dough, but bake cookies every single day. We go through 400 pounds of fresh produce every day, 400 pounds of fresh eggs, 600 pounds of meat — so we still do a lot of cooking and food prep.

Tell us about the offerings at Seasons Café — it's different from the meals served to patients.

Seasons Café is where most visitors and team members eat, as well as members of the community who just drop in for a good meal. (Hospital patients need their doctor's approval to eat there.) The menu changes daily. It has food stations where you can choose from several different hot and cold items — a variety of vegetables, proteins and starches; a salad bar; a custom coffee bar; a deli station; a brick pizza oven; and desserts.

Is there a menu item that you're particularly proud of or partial to?

The spicy tofu taco with celeriac slaw. We created that recently for a low-sodium item and it was very well received in the cafe. We also offered it made with chicken instead of tofu and sold as much with chicken as with tofu. We go through about 100 pounds of tofu each week. Another popular original creation was the Cajun Fried Turkey Sandwich with cranberry pepper relish, arugula and garlic aioli.

Does one person oversee patient food and another oversee food for visitors and staff members?

I do both and it keeps me very busy. The patient meals and menus are a collaborative effort that includes nutritionists and registered dietitians.

Tell us about your cookbook coming out soon.

I co-authored the cookbook with three other chefs. It's called Nouveau V: The New Renaissance of Vegan and Vegetarian Cuisine, and it is scheduled for national release at the end of April. I'm not a vegetarian but the project appealed to me because it gets cooks off the crutch of meat-based proteins.

Who does the cooking at home?

I do. ... I cook about four times a week. We keep it simple, usually one-pot meals. And lots of vegetables. Our daughter loves them, especially green beans.

Ingredient you can't live without?

Garlic.

Food trend you wish would go away?

Over-the-top portion sizes. Restaurants keep serving way too much food and distort what a normal portion size should be.

What's one of your first food memories?

One day when I was 8, I just decided I was going to make banana bread. The recipe called for 2 ¾ cups of milk. But, because I was only beginning to learn about fractions in school, I misunderstood and put in 2 cups of milk, 3 cups of milk and 4 cups of milk, for a total of 9 cups of milk. My mother stepped in and helped me rescale the recipe so that amount of milk would work. We had to borrow some ingredients from neighbors, but it worked. We made something like 30 loaves of banana bread, but it amazed me that we could make some adjustments, still make the recipe work and bake a not-so-bad loaf of banana bread.

Know a chef, caterer, cookbook author, journalist or other local food and drink purveyor we should interview for this feature? Email food editor Michelle Stark at mstark@tampabay.com.

The Dish: JJ Layton, executive chef at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, talks cooking hospital food for thousands 04/18/17 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 18, 2017 5:19am]
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