At Sebastopol’s new Sonoma West Medical Center, chef elevates the menu

Executive Chef Rob Hogencamp is pushing boundaries in a good way at the newly opened Sonoma West Medical Center.|

Grass-fed beef teriyaki with sprouted brown rice and sautéed bok choy, followed by a dessert of Asian pears with orange zest, is a meal one might expect to find at a local farm-to-table restaurant. But if you’re a patient at the newly opened Sonoma West Medical Center (SWMC) in Sebastopol, this might just be your dinner.

“I definitely want to push boundaries,” said Executive Chef Rob Hogencamp. “Some I can’t push. I’m still figuring out what I can do.”

Hogencamp is one half of the team running the kitchen at the hospital, which officially opened its doors Oct. 30th. He has painstakingly worked with a nutritional analysis company to create menus for patients and staff that fit into hospital dietary regulations, but still incorporate his deeply rooted sense of the importance of healthy, tasty food. In fact, Hogencamp would like to go one step further and use as many local, sustainable and seasonal ingredients as possible in his cooking. But, as he has quickly realized in his short tenure as hospital chef, it isn’t as easy as buying produce from the farm down the road.

As Hogencamp explained, Department of Health regulations require hyper-vigilance when feeding a population with suppressed immune systems or that is elderly or fighting serious illness. Traceability is the primary factor that limits where hospitals can source from, said Hogencamp. In other words, if someone gets sick from something they eat, the hospital must be able to trace that food back to its original source – or farm – and account for how it was handled and processed.

Renee Sapp, a registered dietitian who has worked in healthcare for many years, is the other half of the kitchen team. While she said local and organic is “really the ideal,” she also said that there’s less official oversight when buying locally. Hospitals would have to be able to trace everything, she said, including how the farmer aged the compost.

“Selling veggies at the back door works for restaurants,” Sapp said. “You can buy local (in hospitals), but you have to go through the right channels.”

Despite the not yet realized goal to serve primarily local organic products, Hogencamp has been able to integrate a large proportion of these products into his ingredients. The shelves of the immaculate kitchen are lined with food like Mary’s chicken, Humboldt Creamery milk, Three Twins ice cream, cage-free pastured eggs and mushrooms from Sebastopol’s Gourmet Mushrooms. Freshly ground Bella Rosa coffee flows all day long in the cafeteria, and there are no frozen packets of pureed foods in the walk-in cooler.

“The fresher the food is, the more nutrients it has,” Hogencamp said. “The longer it travels, the more nutrients it loses over time.”

As a former chef at the Ceres Community Project, which teaches youth to cook and provides free meals for community members in health crises, Hogencamp is passionate not only about cooking but also about taking care of people with healthy food. He has a background in hospitality and spent a year learning how to grow food at the Santa Rosa Junior College sustainable agriculture program.

He was inspired to join the team at SWMC because, he said, it was the next progression for him to build community and help more people eat healthily. And unlike at Ceres, where food is boxed up and delivered to people, he is able to introduce himself to patients at the hospital and present meals that are freshly prepared and kept at the right temperature.

As Sapp explained, the food at SWMC is more than just nutrition; it is an integral part of the personal and respectful care people receive.

Sapp will walk into one of the 26 in-patient rooms at the hospital and offer patients a menu that includes only freshly made options. Hogencamp has made his own hamburger buns and refuses to use any mixes or frozen vegetables. He even attempted to make the ubiquitous hospital green Jell-o with kale and celery juice.

Patients’ orders are received in the kitchen and their meals are presented with real silverware wrapped in cloth napkins, ceramic dishes and glassware. And if a patient is craving something that isn’t on the menu, Hogencamp can accommodate that, too.

“When you have people that are sick, being able to have that control to say I just want a bowl of broth is really important,” Sapp said. “You can do nutritional analysis on a meal, but if they’re not going to eat it, what’s the point?” she added.

And, according to Sapp, the more patients enjoy and eat their food with their families, the more sustainable it is for the hospital. Patients who are able to eat have shorter stays, she said, and if families can help, nurses can spend more time on other tasks.

Being in Sebastopol, Hogencamp could argue that he is obligated to accommodate a patient’s request for humanely-raised meat or organic vegetables. And, he said, he is “making the best choices he can” at this time to honor these requests.

And the staff also benefits. As Brett Roncelli, an RN who is a regular at the cafeteria explained, the freshly grilled flank steak and gourmet mushroom panini on gluten-free bread it is not your typical “hospital food.”

“It’s like eating at home, but better,” he said.

Hogencamp hopes that his innovative menus will draw more than just patients and staff and help make the new hospital a health center for the community. He even has plans to collaborate with the Occidental Center for Arts and Ecology and the Sebastopol Wellness Center to put in six raised beds and, eventually, feature hospital-grown vegetables like carrots, onions and spring salad mix.

The SWMC cafeteria is open to the public for breakfast, from 8-10 am, and lunch, from noon-?2 pm.

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