TUCSON - Dr. Andrew Weil has yet to open one of his True Food Kitchen restaurants in Tucson, but his dishes will now be available at a venue previously unknown for culinary prowess -- the hospital.
Weil, a Tucson author and nationally recognized founder of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, is lending both his name and recipes to the UA Medical Center's inpatient menu.
Patients staying overnight at the academic medical center, which has two local campuses, will now be able to select healthy gourmet items developed by Weil, such as curried cauliflower soup, Tuscan kale salad and wild salmon with miso, lime and ginger glaze.
The change continues a trend of improving hospital food both locally and nationally away from the stereotype of bland, overcooked meals. In 2006, the UA Medical Center began offering a "room service" menu to patients that includes items like make-your-own omelet, breakfast burrito, pasta or sandwich, among others.
On a national level, more hospitals are employing their own chefs and expanding offerings from standard hospital meatloaf and gelatin desserts.
"As baby boomers have started to age and our customer base has become more demanding, the quality of food has gone up," said Eric Eisenberg, corporate executive chef at Swedish Health Services, which includes five hospitals in the Seattle area.
"That is really a movement over the last 10 years. People have gone from a clinically focused operation to one that is way more balanced with food quality."
Eisenberg, a certified executive chef, is part of the national Association for Healthcare Foodservice, which holds Iron Chef-style culinary competitions.
The baby boomers aren't the only impetus for improving hospital food. There's a financial incentive, too. As a result of the Affordable Care Act, Medicare reimbursements are based in part on patient satisfaction.
In October, the UA Medical Center added Julie Kennedy Oehlert as the hospital's new vice president of patient experience.
Kennedy Oehlert, who is a registered nurse, acknowledged that she "stalked" Weil by attending one of his cooking classes, though she isn't terribly interested in cooking herself.
She attended the class with the UA Medical Center's food and nutrition services director, Susan Bristol, for the express purpose of persuading Weil to work with the hospital.
"Dr. Weil is a name people know," Bristol said. "People are more willing to try new foods when it's a name they recognize."
The recipes are from Weil's 2012 cookbook, "True Food: Seasonal, Sustainable, Simple, Pure," which he co-wrote with business partner and restaurateur Sam Fox and executive chef Michael Stebner. Fox, Stebner and Weil have opened two True Food Kitchens in Phoenix and want to open another restaurant site in Tucson.
Weil focuses on foods that are anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory, since he says so many serious illnesses are a result of chronic inflammation.
Kennedy Oehlert and Bristol didn't need to worry about persuading Weil. He was an easy sell. As it turns out, he had approached the hospital about adding healthier food choices a decade ago and said he was stonewalled.
Though the collaboration with the UA Medical Center marks his first time teaming up with a medical facility for a food project, Weil's interest in improving hospital meals goes back to when he was a fourth-year medical student on hospital rotation and the dining options were typically salty crackers, peanut butter and soda from the vending machine.
"I was amazed and delighted," Weil said of Kennedy Oehlert's idea to collaborate.
On March 5, dietetic interns at the UA Medical Center presented several of Weil's recipes for the hospital cafeteria's lunch menu. The theme was "Prescribing a Healthier You," and the event drew thousands of staff members and visitors.
On Tuesday, Weil tasted some of the recipes that had been prepared by the hospital staff and did a cooking demonstration of his Tuscan kale salad, which includes chili flakes, sea salt, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and bread crumbs.
He also offered Kennedy Oehlert some tips, like removing imitation crab from the cafeteria's sushi offerings because it is not a healthful ingredient.
The hospital staff tasted items such as Weil's gluten-free pasta with kale pesto and turkey bolognese with shiitake mushrooms. Executive Chef Steve Martin said Weil offered advice on some of the flavoring, which is sometimes harder to exact when recipes are multiplied for larger volumes.
The hospital plans on adding Weil's items in the near future, with special inserts in the existing patient menus. The Weil items are options only. Patients can still order more traditional hospital items.
"There will always be red Jell-O at the hospital. There's a clinical need for it," Swedish Health's Eisenberg said. "People who are on clear liquid diets, you've got to give them something to chew on. To say we are going to abolish Jell-O isn't really serving your client base."