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Try Robin’s Cove at Meritus Medical Center.
The restaurant at the hospital? But don’t they only serve green Jell-O and applesauce?
Joe Fleischman wants to change your mind about hospital food.
“Everyone thinks, ‘Hospital food means green Jell-O,’” said Fleischman. “People find out I work at a hospital, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who makes the green Jell-O.’ I get that all the time.”
But Fleischman and his staff of 27 work at a busy commercial kitchen — preparing carefully monitored dishes for patients, a variety of foods for cafeteria customers, and catering meetings and other events every day in the hospital.
And, yes, sometimes they serve Jell-O.
“Surprisingly, we do make green Jell-O,” he said. “We don’t have it on all the time, but believe it or not, people like it. There’s a reason it’s on hospital menus. It’s a comfort food when you’re sick.”
Fleischman sat down with The Herald-Mail in the sunny, modern cafeteria in the lower level of Meritus’ campus to talk about cooking food for patients and for the public.
How old are you?
Forty-two. I live in Hagers-town with my wife, Diane, and three children — Joseph, 5, Hadley 7, and Lauren, 9.
Where did you grow up?
Waynesboro, Pa. My parents still live there.
Right in town?
Actually I grew up out in the country in the middle of Hagerstown, Greencastle and Waynesboro. Where my parents live, where I grew up, I could be in either Hagerstown, Greencastle (Pa.) or Waynesboro in 10 minutes.
So you were just over the border?
I was in what we call the marsh area. There was a duck pond out there. That’s what we called the marsh. The Paramount area of Hagerstown is just right over the line, so it was very close. Kind of convenient: centrally isolated.
So were you literally on a farm?
In the country. Farms surrounding us, but we were not a farm.
What were family meals like?
Grocery store food. We did a lot of canning when my grandparents were still alive. They actually were on a farm. So I grew up on their farm. We did a lot of farming, a lot of smoking, composting, you name it, dairy farming, that’s the way I grew up. My parents didn’t. They weren’t a chip off the old block, so to speak. My mom couldn’t cook. At all. That’s why I almost had to learn how to cook. She was horrible. She’ll say this to your face: “I can’t (cook).” I kinda had to work on that when I was younger.
Who was your cooking model?
My grandmother. My mother’s mother. I grew up on her farm. She was an outstanding cook. She was of Romanian descent. So I’m part German, part Romanian.
My mother’s mother cooked everything from scratch, like people did back then. A lot of stuff was grown there on the farm. Or accessed very locally — traded, bartered with other farmers, things like that. She did a lot of neat stuff. Sorta Old World — Eastern European stuff, goulashes, borscht, all kinds of stuff kids today really don’t get. She did all that stuff. It was really cool.
When did you begin to think, “Maybe I could do food professionally?”
It wasn’t until I was probably 19 or 20. I worked in kitchens when I was younger. And when I got out of high school, I went to (Hagerstown Community College). I got my associate’s degree. The whole time I was working in kitchens. I said “I’m not working in kitchens, there’s not no way. I want to go to college and get a job, like every normal person.”
So I got my associate’s, and I got a normal desk job, and I hated it. I couldn’t take it. It was the most horrible job. No way! There’s no way! So I hopped back in the kitchen.
Did you go to culinary school?
I started at (a culinary school in) Pittsburgh for a very limited amount of time. It was literally three weeks. I said, “This isn’t for me.” Because a lot of the stuff that I was learning, I already knew. Now I didn’t really give it a fair shake. I was a lot younger. But I decided to go it on my own.
I guess I had a natural affinity for (cooking), because I’ve always gotten promoted, from the time I was a little kid. I would move around the Frederick (Md.) area, I would find a chef that I liked, get a job there for a couple years, I would apprentice, which in my field is your normal, accepted way to learn. So I already had sort of the business background from my stint at HCC, and the culinary thing kind of worked out. And here I am.
Are you the executive chef at Meritus?
The official title is chef, food production manager. I started seven years ago, Feb. 22. It was my middle daughter, Hadley’s, birth day. She was born in Washington County Hospital. I started the following day. I was actually in the hospital for orientation that day, and my wife went home with the baby.
I directly oversee 27 (workers), and I indirectly oversee another 70. We have right about 100 (workers) in nutrition services.
You must use a lot of institutional, bulk food. Do you buy local at all?
We try to access as much as we can local, sustainable. We get, for example, we get all of our lettuces hydroponically grown out of Waynesboro. We get all our tomatoes from the same hydro farm. We do all kinds of stuff like that.
Part of the reason I wanted to profile you was to learn more about two programs — Fryerless Fridays and Meatless Mondays.
Meatless Mondays were started during World War I. There’s a slogan: “Rationing will win the war.” It ... got restarted during World War II (and) reinstituted about 2000 by the (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) as a way to spare animals. Health care has (promoted eating meals without meat) within the past five or six years. It’s something we (at Meritus) looked at in the past couple years. We said, “I don’t know if we can do this. What are people going to say?” We thought about it and then this wellness program came along, and it was a natural fit.
With Fryerless Fridays, you’re leading up to doing without the fryer completely. Tell me about that.
This was an organizational directive. Basically, they said “Hey, can we do without our fryer?” We’re a hospital, obviously, and the first thing you see when you walk in the door (at Robin’s Cove) is the fryer. So we did some research. We had a TurboChef oven here already. So we said, “Yes, we can do a lot of this stuff with a TurboChef oven.”
Tell me about the TurboChef.
The TurboChef, basically, it’s a combination of convection cooking and microwave cooking. The microwave cooks the inside of the food while the convection browns the outside. So it cooks all at the same time, rather than outside-in, as a normal oven would, or inside-out, as a microwave would.
We have one in the kitchen now. We’re going to be installing four on Thursday (Feb. 28) — that’s the last day for our fryers at Meritus Health. The fryers will get shut down at about 2 in the afternoon, and we will replace them with TurboChef ovens. We can’t do french fries, but we’ll do seasoned potato wedges. We can still do chicken tenders.
As a chef, this would be one of your guiding principles in the kitchen here. There’s an education component. What else is important?
Locally sourcing; and getting the staff to believe in what we do. Not just the kitchen staff — the guys I oversee are obviously important — but the people out here on the front line, speaking to people when they come in. Because they might have a little bit of (upset) — “Oh, no, they’re taking away the fryer!” — but they say, “No, it’s a good thing. Have you tried (this new dish)?” That’s been great.
A lot of people are like 12-year-olds about trying new foods, but Western Maryland gets a bad rap. We’re not that much different from everybody else. We live in the mountains, yeah, but people here still want to be healthy and try new things.
I really didn’t know Robin’s Cove was open to the public.
Oh, absolutely. People come all the time to eat. We have a lot of different foods. A lot of different stations. If you take the kids to a restaurant, it’s kind of the same thing.
So, when you’re at home with the family, who cooks?
I do. Sometimes I use my family as a springboard for stuff we may do here. So I make all kinds of different stuff. I’ll be lucky if I make the same thing twice a year. I also try to stretch a dollar. That’s a big thing with me. And I play with stuff at home. Different fresh veggies, prepared seasonally. Today, we’ll make some ratatouille. I’ll think, “Is this going to work? Can we run this at the hospital? Let’s give that a try.”
Sometimes my wife gets kind of mad, because I’m not saying everything is a hit. Sometimes it’s a big fail, and you can cross that (dish) off the list.
And when you’re hanging with the family, or by yourself, what do you do for fun?
We camp. We fish. We hike. Outdoor kind of stuff. We’re usually all together. The kids like to do stuff and be active. I do fish quite a bit. Trying to cut back. I’m a junkie.
I like to say you don’t have to leave the state of Maryland ever to find things to do. There’s beaches over here, there’s mountains there. There’s always something to do, and you can be basically anywhere in the state in three hours.
I just learned you cater. Just for the hospital, or all over?
Pretty much just in our walls. Meetings, senior administration stuff, doctors’ parties, a lot of events. We average, I’d say, nine events a day.
Nine a day? I had no idea.
A building this size, there’s a lot of different meetings, and everybody gets catered. There’s a lot of standing meetings, like on the second Tuesday of every month. Last month they had this; they don’t want that again, so we do different things for them. You really got to use your head.
But we’re here for patients. Catering is fine and dandy — we get to go to the creative side. But patients —that’s where we really need to have customer satisfaction. So recipe development, things like that, that’s what we look for, ways to satisfy our patients.
(There is a) changing demographic: 20, 30 years ago, we had a lot of (country and small-town families) who wanted more of a homestyle thing. Now, we have transplants from the city who commute back and forth, and from an ethnic standpoint, there’s a lot of different people. (We have more people) that are kind of like, “I don’t want green Jell-O.”
If you go ...
Robin’s Cove at Meritus
Meritus Medical Center
11116 Medical Campus Road, east of Hagerstown
Call 301-790-8000 or go to www.meritushealth.com
Open to the public daily 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.