How the top chef at Renown will keep folks fed during the coronavirus patient surge
Justin Bart surely runs the largest food and drink outfit in Reno right now.
Bart is executive chef of Renown Health, overseeing meals for patients and staff across its rehabilitation hospital, its South Reno medical center, and its flagship regional medical center just east of downtown.
This past week, the flagship alone served about 1,200 meals a day to patients and about 1,500 meals a day to employees. With casinos closed to help slow the coronavirus, those are the biggest culinary numbers in town.
And likely getting bigger.
For several weeks, Bart has been planning how Renown will feed patients and staff safely, nutritiously and on time during a pandemic patient surge. When exactly that surge will hit is uncertain, with estimates ranging widely from next week to sometime in June.
"Given that we might be feeding hundreds if not thousands more during the surge, I knew I could not take on those numbers with my crew effectively," said Bart, who has a food service team of about 170.
"The patients are the priority. That left a big hole: How are we going to take care of the front-line staff?"
The answer: outside talent.
A contract that keeps 25 people employed
Roundabout Catering, owned by chef Colin and MaryBeth Smith, ranks among the region's largest caterers, with a fleet of trucks, a 25-foot mobile kitchen and a 20,000-square-foot complex in Sparks. Roundabout contracts include Tesla and Panasonic.
With those bona fides, "Colin was the first to come to mind," Bart said, describing his search for a contractor to feed hospital employees and other workers during the pandemic so the Renown culinary team can focus on feeding patients.
The caterer began work April 8 with 25 Roundabout staffers preparing and serving meals featured at Sierra Café, the regional medical center's employee cafeteria and retail outlet.
Hot and cold meals: grab-and-go or dine-in
"We're treating Renown as one of our satellites," Colin Smith said, by offering a menu of hot and cold meals that changes daily — some grab-and-go that are ready to eat, some packaged for re-heating, some freshly prepared for dining at the café.
Dozens of dishes range from banana muffins and chorizo breakfast burritos to soups, salads and quiches du jour; from tandoori chicken skewers to pulled pork on brioche; from grilled portobello on focaccia to flat-iron steak chimichurri to housemade brownies.
Some of these meals are prepped at Roundabout in Sparks, others issue from a Roundabout refrigeration truck parked on site and some are prepared in a section of the Renown kitchens set aside for the caterer.
"It was a little hectic in the back of the house, getting up the freight elevator, learning where all the widgets are, the coolers, the storage," Smith said of Roundabout's first day.
"We hope the Renown staff didn't see a noticeable difference except for different food options. We wanted to pick up the reins with no letdown. We wanted to keep the quality high."
The Renown contract, the chef added, has allowed Roundabout to continue employing the 25 people working at the hospital, some of whom might otherwise have been laid off. "It's been a blessing."
Taking universal safety precautions
Chefs tend to be territorial about their kitchens, and Bart acknowledged, "it's been weird having someone from the outside coming into our kitchen." At the same time, "it's taken a huge load off. It's been huge for my crew to concentrate on patient services only."
That focus begins with culinary safety, the chef said.
"We're practicing social distancing. We're washing hands more than anyone has washed their hands. Everybody's in masks, gloves, aprons. We're taking universal precautions."
Streamlining the menu (but what about pot pie?)
The new normal will extend to the Renown patient menu as the chef and crew plan for the pandemic patient surge.
Currently, the menu runs to about 50 rotating items covering breakfast, lunch and dinner: smoothies, fruit cups and yogurt parfait; Caesar salad and tomato soup; quesadillas, vegetarian lasagna and turkey pot pie, plus a host of sides and desserts.
Patients can choose from build-your-own sandwiches and top-your-own pizzas; they can mix and match items from across the menu. There's Jell-O, yes, but also a lemon bar and a chocolate milkshake. Nutrition staffers visit patient rooms in the evening to discuss three squares for the next day.
As patient numbers increase during the pandemic, the menu breadth and flexibility will be streamlined, Bart said, with fewer dishes and fewer flavors offered "so we can focus on getting the food to the patients. We want a quick turnaround for the next meal. We don't want the patients to see any difference on their end."
Going forward, Bart said he also had to consider his limited kitchen space — "we're not a casino" — and potential supply chain disruptions for certain ingredients.
Amid the changes, the chef added, at least one thing would remain the same. The popular turkey pot pie: It's not going anywhere.
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