UNC REX Healthcare
UNC REX Healthcare

Chef Ryan Conklin Is Elevating the Art of Hospital Food

UNC REX Healthcare
UNC REX Healthcare

A hospital is one of the last places you might expect to find a great Thanksgiving dinner. But some people are actually choosing to spend their holiday at UNC REX Healthcare, a hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, just to taste the legendary food. “Someone told me they came there for Thanksgiving last year because they knew they’d get a good meal,” Ryan Conklin, UNC REX's executive chef, tells mental_floss. “It’s the ultimate compliment.”

Conklin joined UNC REX as a chef in 2008 after four years in a managerial role at a New York state healthcare system. Unlike other chefs in the healthcare food service industry, Conklin also has extensive restaurant experience. He graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and went on to work as a chef at New York City’s Four Seasons hotel. His passion for high-quality cuisine is something he brought with him to his current position, and it shows in his menu. 

A typical meal served at UNC might include their signature lime-and-ginger-glazed salmon, or the popular Southern-style pecan-crusted chicken. The kitchen staff tries to source their ingredients locally whenever possible, and they even offer seasonal tasting menus during the warmer months. This summer, patients had the option to order heirloom tomato tasting plates, complete with menu cards describing where each variety was grown.

“We like to see ourselves as leading the way of reinventing modern healthcare cuisine,” says Conklin. “We really care about making sure our patients are fed well. For one moment, we can make them feel like they’re not in a hospital.” 

So far the patient response has been tremendous, but they're not the only ones who’ve taken notice of the quiet culinary revolution happening inside the hospital's kitchen. Two years after he joined the staff, Conklin signed his team up for a competition at Johnson & Wales University to battle against other hospital chefs. They took home the gold medal, which encouraged them to sign up for even more healthcare food service competitions across the country. 

Soon they were being mentioned in industry trade magazines, and then in larger consumer publications such as GQ and Condé Nast Traveler. People began visiting UNC for no other reason than to try the nationally acclaimed hospital food for themselves.

Today, UNC REX isn’t just known for serving great hospital food; they’re known for serving some of the greatest food in the state. This distinction was reinforced on Halloween night, when Conklin led his team of chefs to a final-round victory in the statewide “Got to Be NC” cooking competition. The competitors included 60 of the best fine dining chefs from across North Carolina, and after a year-long competition it was the hospital chefs who were crowned the winners. “A lot of people didn’t think we even deserved be there,” admits Conklin. “Our expertise comes from serving a lot of people every day. I think that ultimately was an advantage for us.” 

Now that he’s upped the culinary game within UNC REX, Conklin hopes to revolutionize the dining experience in hospitals across the country. Serving restaurant-quality meals isn’t as impractical as many healthcare facilities might assume.

By cooking their food from scratch instead of buying pre-packaged meals, Conklin insists his team is actually saving the hospital money in the long run. The secret is for hospitals to invest the time in providing their chefs with professional training, as UNC has done with its Black Hat Chefs program. That way they will be able to make the most of whatever ingredients they have. “A lot of places out there might not have the culinary talent to utilize, let’s say, the ends of the tomato,” Conklin explains. “Let’s turn those tomato ends into a fire-roasted tomato salsa! We try to create a culture that says, 'Let’s save everything and make the most out of it.'"

Representatives from healthcare organizations have come from all over to learn from the chefs at UNC. And Conklin and his team regularly visit hospitals to work with their culinary staffs and inspire them to produce elevated hospital cuisine. He hopes to one day find a way to provide his healthcare cuisine to patients on a broader scale. But for now, Conklin is focused on giving patients a Thanksgiving they’ll never forget. Says Conklin: "Just because you’re in a hospital cafeteria doesn’t mean you can’t have an excellent roast turkey."

All images courtesy of UNC REX Healthcare
nextArticle.image_alt|e
Central Press/Getty Images
Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 119th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."


Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."


Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."


By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
4 Movies, 1 Thing In Common II
iStock
iStock

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios