MCV Hospitals may be best known for pioneering work in medical treatment and research, but behind the scenes its new space-age food operations system is cutting edge. 

Cosmic Cuisine

Patients at the Medical College of Virginia Hospitals at Virginia Commonwealth University are digging in to more than Jell-O and mushy peas.

Little do they know it's due to re-thermalization.

With the millennium countdown on, MCV has ditched the in-house way it prepared 1,200 patient meals a day — even the grill has been abandoned — in favor of a Buck Rogers-style high-tech food system. Launched in September, it has all the futuristic gadgetry of "The Jetsons" — lasers, beeps, hermetic space-age packaging — and relies on humans to operate and assemble it.

Early taste tests, from a permanent menu of pre-cooked and prepared items, win the discerning thumbs-up from nurses, orderlies and support services staff. More important, thanks to state-of-the-art kitchen technology, odious food that provoked winces and "yucks" from patients, now inspires forkfuls aplenty.

The food looks and smells almost as scrumptious as the plate of meatloaf served at home. Piping hot, a decent-sized mound of macaroni-and-cheese begs spooning. A small side salad with cherry tomatoes and cucumber crisply waits to be drizzled with tangy dressing. Even the vegetable medley looks good. And for dessert, there's a nice wedge of New York-style cheesecake washed down with a ice-cold Shasta cola.

Since September, for the 400 patients fed three times daily at MCV Hospitals, mealtime has been more like a trip to Cracker Barrel than a visit to the hospital's cafeteria.

"I decided to pursue a new concept," says Darrell Johnson, director of support services and planning at MCV hospitals. Johnson realized the time had come to modernize the hospital's on-site food preparation system. There were too many cooks in the kitchen. Recipes differed, which made meals inconsistent. Labor and food costs had increased, and food waste was high — patients weren't eating much of the food.

The challenge, says Johnson, was to find a more efficient, high-quality system that could be implemented quickly and easily. More than a handful of national food service providers expressed interest. Sodexho Marriott, a food and facilities management services company based in Gaithersburg, Md., presented the most impressive proposal. According to the contract, Sodexho Marriott makes the initial capital investment — $800,000 to $900,000 — which MCV pays back over five years. Sodexho Marriott also agrees to lend consultants — like David Healy, general manager of support services and Karina Dalton, director of food and nutritional services — to MCV for the length of the contract. With an 844-bed hospital, adding Sodexho management to the mix sold Johnson on the company. What's more, after the five-year contract, MCV will own the 68-piece set of trademark A La Carte chillers and re-thermalization units that are, for now, the only in the state. "This is neat stuff," says Johnson gleefully.

The most fascinating component of the system is the laser-driven heating and chilling process called re-thermalization. Pre-cooked and plated food stays cold, not frozen, until precisely 38 minutes before being served. Then, re-thermalization units that each contain 20 food-laden plates and look like gray magician's trunks, are wheeled into hospital galleys and hooked into 5-foot tall vacuumlike apparatuses called chillers. If the cart is not hooked up properly or if the timer's off, it beeps, loudly, until fixed.

Then, the chiller blasts air at 17 degrees into the holes marked cold, while lasers target food to be heated through the open holes marked hot. After 38 minutes — ding! — the chiller sounds and the plates are ready. All at once the chicken, macaroni, salad, cake and soft drink are ready to eat — and each at precisely the right temperature. It takes only an hour and a half to feed nearly 400 patients per meal, where before it took hours.

Skilled tray assembly workers are needed to ensure each plate is loaded correctly; many of the 72 food support services employees have had nearly four months of specialized training.

Gloria Johnson's been working in the kitchen of the support services building at MCV for 10 years. Today, she wears her apron, gloves and hairnet just as she's always done, but only recently did she master the methodical plating technique that's necessary for the new system to run smoothly.

Johnson and the 11 others who work the two-sided tray assembly line know what's cooking — and what's not. They've memorized the layout of completed breakfast, lunch and dinner plates from pictures taped over the tray assembly station. One by one patients' menus are checked-off and carefully assembled. Chicken goes in the middle where the heat is strongest, rice pilaf to the right, vegetables to the left. A roll, two pats of butter, a piece of pie, iced tea and plastic-wrapped utensils quickly fill the plate. Then, staffer Evelyn Hall checks the plate's contents against the Menu Minder. This large cardlike device is what makes Jell-O jiggle and not turn into cherry liquid. Red for hot, blue for cold, two pea-sized holes — which attract the laser if open and deflect it if closed — appear next to each plate number, one for the entree the other for the side dish. Roast beef, hot; salad, cold. Tuna fish sandwich, cold; chicken noodle soup, hot.

Sodexho's Dalton says so far, mistakes have been few. "We're still in the process of fine tuning," she says. Already a favorite stands out among patients: the meatloaf. "Nobody liked the meatloaf we served before," Dalton says. "But they really eat this up." She says too, that apart from frustrations with training an entire staff at once, there have been very few glitches. No ice-cold pork dinners or melted meringues. But Dalton does confess there's been one menu item that hasn't lived up to expectations: the breakfast potatoes. For now they've been pulled from the menu. "The nutrition interns are doing a product analysis on them," she says.

After three months running, Johnson says the futuristic food service system could save MCV $1.5 million annually. Still, he claims it's more about taste than money. "All the great restaurants — The Berkeley, The Jefferson, and now the patients at MCV — have excellent

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