Vail’s hospital gourmet
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL – Move over Jell-O and Saltine crackers, it’s lunchtime at Remedies Cafe.
The hospital cafeteria might be the last place most would look for a great meal, but that’s just what many say they find at the Vail Valley Medical Center’s Remedies Cafe. Tucked in the basement of the hospital, the cafeteria is typically buzzing at lunch, filled with hospital employees, patients and visitors, and even a handful of people who are in the hospital for no reason other than to grab lunch.
It’s humble and comfortable, with a price list that won’t break the bank, but the food is good and the people friendly – it’s a cross between your high school cafeteria and mom’s kitchen.
“There’s a certain stigma associated with hospital food,” said Chase Wiens, food service manager and executive chef of the cafe. “People think of Jell-O and chicken broth – and not that the hospital doesn’t serve some of that, especially to patients. But we want to change that perception with our patients and guests.”
Jordan Thomas, of Pennsylvania, said he was definitely pleasantly surprised by the food.
“I thought it would be a high school cafeteria type thing, but it’s very good food,” said Jordan, who was at the hospital following hip surgery. He was working on a grilled roast beef sandwich oozing with cheese while his mother, Maureen Jordan, had a salad from the salad bar.
“We’re here from out of town, so we’re in here every day,” Maureen Jordan said. “It’s nice that I didn’t have to leave the hospital while he was having surgery. And the people have been wonderful. You feel comfortable when you come down.”
Amanda Rocha, a sterile processing technician, eats most days at the cafeteria and said she usually gets something off the grill.
“I used to work at a hospital in Denver, and it’s nothing compared to this,” she said. “It’s a different environment. It feels more like a restaurant and less like a hospital.”
Diners don’t have to expect the same fare every day either – you can find staples like a sandwich and salad bar, as well as burgers and fries from the grill, but the daily specials rotate on an eight-week schedule.
Dinners are a bit more flexible – usually the chefs work with what they have and come up with something innovative, such as tarragon chicken breast with pasta and pesto cream sauce.
“There are people who eat here five days a week and come in every single day for lunch, so we keep variety,” Wiens said. “We have the salad bar for people who are eating light, and if you want to go greasy and bad, you can get something off the grill.”
The tasty fare, as well as prices that have earned the daily specials the unofficial title of “best lunch deal in town,” have attracted a small group of diners from outside the hospital walls as well.
“We do have a little core of people who appreciate the deal. Some stumble across it and don’t realize that this is available,” Wiens said. “In the winter, we also get a fair amount of traffic from skiers coming off the mountain.”
Andrey Blagonya, who works in construction at the Four Seasons project down the street from the hospital, was ready to dig into a plate of chicken covered with tomato sauce, provolone cheese, herbs with a side of polenta and green beans. The meal cost $5.75.
He is one of many nearby construction workers who preferred the hospital cafeteria to eating in Vail Village.
“We were looking for solutions for cheaper food, and now about 10 of us come here everyday,” he said. “It’s good stuff, and you can get a meal (with a drink and sides) for $10. I introduce this place to everyone.”
Wiens said that first-time diners usually register some surprise at the check-out counter.
“Some don’t say anything because they think we messed up and they want the deal,” Wiens said. “Others comment on how great a deal it is. One guy who comes in regularly calls it the best deal in town every time he rings out.”
Lower prices aren’t uncommon at hospitals, said Wiens. Food needs to be affordable for employees, who often need to stay close to the hospital, and patients and guests, who often don’t have a choice where they eat.
However, not many hospitals can boast an American Culinary Federation accreditation, a recognition that sets standards for chefs and restaurants around the country.
Another thing you won’t find at the cafe is the grumpy lunch lady – the servers are friendly, and Wiens and his fellow cooks care about what they do.
Wiens, who started cooking in his mother’s kitchen, started his culinary career as a pot scrubber in a cafeteria and eventually had his own restaurant,. His work at the hospital is most rewarding.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s not for every chef, but this lets me use a broad range of my skills, from planning to cooking to administration. It’s not glamorous, but I know (the work) is appreciated.”
Staff Writer Melanie Wong can be reached at 970-748-2928 or email@example.com.