Chefs reimagine hospital food with plant-forward recipes

Health Care Culinary Contest finalists revealed, winner to be announced at CleanMed

Health Care Without Harm
11 min readApr 24, 2024

Last fall, hospital chefs across the country submitted their plant-forward recipes to the sixth Health Care Culinary Contest in hopes of being named America’s most celebrated hospital chef of the year. Our five finalists redesigned cultural classics from around the world including delectable Sicilian rice balls, herb-filled Vietnamese rice noodle soup, and crunchy Asian lettuce wraps.

Combining comfort and nourishment, these chefs are bringing patients the nutrition they need through heritage favorites they love.

Meet the chefs, and read the inspiration behind their creative, plant-forward recipes.

  • Providence St. Joseph Hospital Orange’s pho-bowl-ous jackfruit — Chef Joseph Hirsch
  • Mayo Clinic’s three sisters blue zone tacos — Chef Michael J. Millben
  • Parkview Regional Medical Center’s beet tataki — Chef Michael Mongiello
  • Overlook Medical Center’s Sicilian butternut squash and sweet pea arancini — Chef Thomas Norris
  • Scripps Health’s Asian tofu lettuce wraps — Chef Fri Reyes

Providence St. Joseph Hospital Orange’s pho-bowl-ous jackfruit

Chef Joseph Hirsch

“By embracing local ingredients and reflecting the cuisine of the surrounding community, we can create a dining experience that goes beyond nourishment.”

-Chef Joseph Hirsch

Mouthwatering five-spice jackfruit, tender rice noodles, and fresh herbs combine in an aromatic broth to take traditional pho to the next level.

How did you approach the creation of this recipe?

As a regional executive chef, I understand the culinary challenges in a hospital setting, particularly when it comes to accommodating dietary restrictions, food trends, and overcoming the stigma associated with hospital food. To better connect with our community during times of healing, I found diverse cultural menus play a crucial role.

I noticed traditional dishes like meatloaf, chicken pot pie, and pot roast are not as popular and can be perceived as institutional when included on the menu. To address this growth in culture, I incorporated traditional Vietnamese ingredients and flavors into our offerings, paying homage to rich culinary traditions. In doing so, we can not only ensure freshness, but contribute to the sustainability of our community by sourcing local ingredients.

As the world becomes more conscious of sustainable and healthy eating, introducing plant-forward ingredients into traditional dishes becomes a valuable approach. Jackfruit, a versatile and nutritious fruit, can be an excellent addition to pho. Its meaty texture and ability to absorb flavors make it a suitable substitute for meat, appealing to both vegetarians and those looking to reduce their meat consumption. By incorporating jackfruit into pho, hospitals can cater to a wider range of dietary preferences while maintaining the essence of the dish.

What was the inspiration for your recipe?

Orange, California, is home to a vibrant Vietnamese population, and our proximity to the local community has allowed us to recognize and appreciate the significance of cultural representation in our comfort food offerings. Here at St. Joseph, pho has emerged as a symbol of comfort and nourishment. Its aromatic broth, tender noodles, and flavorful toppings have the power to uplift spirits and provide solace during challenging times. Each bowl of pho tells a story, reflecting the culinary heritage and soul of Vietnam, while also symbolizing unity within our community.

How did you promote your recipe?

Word of mouth! Marketing materials were displayed several days before the launch to create a buzz throughout the hospital.

Final thoughts

Comfort food holds immense power in hospitals. Our commitment to providing diverse and culturally representative menus extends beyond just meeting dietary needs. For St. Joseph, serving a large Vietnamese community and incorporating pho as a comfort food option with plant-forward ingredients can enhance the connection between patients and their cultural heritage. It is a way for us to connect with our community, promote healing, and offer a sense of comfort and familiarity during times of recovery, not just in body, but also in spirit.

Mayo Clinic’s three sisters blue zone tacos

Chef Michael J. Millben

“As chefs, cooks, and culinarians, it’s our duty to create food that will heal and leave a lasting impression. That’s my mission!”

-Chef Michael J. Millben

Plantain tortillas are a satisfyingly chewy base for creamy, seasoned beans, topped with a crunchy corn salsa and a mojo verde sauce.

How did you approach the creation of this recipe?

I began developing the dish with the blue zone diet and dietary restrictions in mind. I wanted a universal, plant-forward concept that I could easily fit in all areas of a hospital. Tacos were my answer. Everyone loves tacos! But I needed to reinvent the wheel to make this taco stand out and taste great.

I decided to create a tortilla shell from plantains, a perfect plant-based alternative. For the filling, I went with the concept of the “three sisters,” a vegetable medley of corn, squash, and beans, that are planted together so each plant can support and nourish the others. Together, the complementary amino acids of the three sisters form complete proteins and virtually eliminate the need for meat. The end product was a taco that was not only free of the big nine allergens, but also vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free.

What was the inspiration for your recipe?

I recently had the honor of cooking for a group of wonderful individuals on campus who were presenting on how the blue zone diet is a great approach to healing and a healthier way of eating. The host of the event shared her story and why this concept was so important to her — it actually saved her life.

How did you promote your recipe?

The retail managers were a big help in creating signage and using the menu screens in the café to promote the concept. I am truly proud of the success and support I have had at my hospital.

Final thoughts

The showcase at my café was a huge success, and I was thrilled to share my concept with the customers. A customer sent a review to our leadership the day after the concept launched, stating, “I wanted to say thank you for the special three sisters blue zone tacos. They were so tasty! I know many of my coworkers enjoyed it. I hope they become a regular feature.” Teaching and motivating my coworkers about food is a true passion of mine, but at the end of the day, taking care of patients and customers is most important in a hospital setting.

About the chef

Millben has been with Compass One Healthcare for five years. He began with Chartwells in 2019 and moved into the Morrison Healthcare sector three years later. In May 2023, he graduated from the Accelerated Manager Program, a 12-week training course focused on fast-tracking individuals into management, and soon after moved into his current sous-chef position.

Parkview Regional Medical Center’s beet tataki

Chef Michael Mongiello

“My career as a chef has slowly evolved to vegetables as the center of the plate and animal protein being minimized to a garnish or nonexistent.”
-Chef Michael Mongiello

Tender, earthy sliced beets are dressed in a tangy sauce and topped with crunchy sesame seeds for a plant-forward take on a conventional seafood dish.

How did you approach the creation of this recipe?

The beet tataki highlights my love for Japanese cuisine and cooking techniques. My career as a chef has slowly evolved to highlight vegetables as the center of the plate with animal protein being minimized to a garnish or nonexistent. Root-to-stem cooking aims to use as much of an ingredient as possible to reduce food waste. This dish makes the beet the center of the plate, demonstrates sustainable ingredients, and elevates the daily demanding work of local farmers. The beets mimic tuna and the trimmings, along with dried shiitake mushrooms, are used to make the sauce. Additionally, beet greens are julienned and lightly pickled to make a small salad on top of the seared sliced beets.

What was the inspiration for your recipe?

I grew up in New York City where I was exposed to diverse foods and cultures. I remember my father taking me for sushi and me getting up on my knees to look over the bar and watch the chefs work. I became fascinated with Japanese food, knife skills, and culture. My mother is an extremely talented home cook; she helped me find cookbooks and involved me in the kitchen to try new things.

My goal for this dish is to emphasize the importance of root-to-stem cooking, waste reduction, and plant-based foods, and address global issues of unsustainable fishing practices. The beet tataki supports one of Parkview’s goals to reduce the amount of waste occurring in our kitchens. In addition to creative, plant-forward menus, Parkview uses WasteWatch by Leanpath, a system that digitally tracks food waste, helps us set reduction goals, and demonstrates our fiscal impact. Our reports show as we attain our goals, we are reducing our carbon footprint.

How did you promote your recipe?

I promoted this dish in our physicians lounge by setting up an action station with all my mise en place and signage to engage doctors about the contest. I gave them a brief summary of my dish while preparing samples.

Final thoughts

The beet is one of those vegetables that people always scoff at when asked if they like it. Often, people will say, “it tastes like dirt.” The beet displays my love for challenging people to try something they do not normally like and presenting it in a different way. This dish may reintroduce the beet to be enjoyed, and demonstrate to people the importance of sustainable farming and how vegetables can be transformed into something delicious, accessible, nutritious, and minimally impactful to the environment.

Overlook Medical Center’s Sicilian butternut squash and sweet pea arancini.

Chef Thomas Norris

“Most of the community we provide care to is patients at a time of healing when nutrition is extremely important.”
-Chef Thomas Norris

Crispy rice gives way to a creamy, savory squash filling with peas, providing a pop of sweetness that redefines comfort food.

How did you approach the creation of this recipe?

I drew inspiration from a dish engraved in Sicilian history and modernized it to serve our diverse community and reflect our system’s sustainability goals. With this recipe, I was trying to hit a lot of different taste buds and textures with the sweetness of peas, savoriness of squash, creaminess of rice, and crunch of the crispy fried breadcrumbs.

I wanted to take advantage of organic butternut squash, a local staple and seasonal favorite, to create a comforting and hearty fall/early winter dish. In line with Atlantic Health System’s sustainability goals, most of the produce used in my recipe was locally sourced from Summit Farmers’ Market stands, Alstede Farms, Ort Farms, and Overlook’s community garden. The peas are organic, requiring less water and fertilizer than other plant-based proteins. The arborio rice uses water-efficient cultivation methods such as alternate wetting and drying techniques, as well as laser leveling technology. To reduce food waste, all produce scraps were utilized to make the vegetable stock or composted for the community garden.

What is the history of your recipe?

Arancini are stuffed, deep-fried rice balls with origins that can be traced back to 10th century Sicily, Italy. While they can be found year round, they are traditionally eaten on Dec. 13 for the Feast of Santa Lucia. During this festival, bread and pasta are not eaten — rice is the main grain, leading arancini to become a popular street festival food and cherished comfort food.

How did you promote your recipe?

I served the final dish as a feature during vegetarian week in our employee cafeteria. We made a poster listing a featured item each day and handed out recipe cards for anyone to take and try at home. In December, Atlantic Health held a culinary showcase for hospital executive chefs to offer tastings of their dishes and highlight their personal stories.

Final thoughts

I wanted my own take on this popular dish that could also be plant-forward. This recipe is especially important to me for its simplicity and the comfort a savory fried snack can bring someone. At a patient’s time of healing, nutrition is extremely important. Arancini is made with whole grains and filled with produce, which provides our patients with a healthy and nutritious option that is also comforting and hearty.

About the chef

With over 25 years of industry experience, Norris has been the executive chef for food service at Overlook Medical Center since 2019. Norris is classically trained from the Culinary Institute of America and has a bachelor’s degree in nutrition from Rutgers University.

Scripps Health’s Asian tofu lettuce wraps

Chef Fri Reyes

“Through the recipes I learned in childhood, I found the foundation of what I want my food to be.”

-Chef Fri Reyes

With savory tofu and peppers in a satisfying, Asian-inspired sauce combined with a crunch, these lettuce wraps are a fresh take on a classic dish.

How did you approach the creation of this recipe?

Lettuce wraps are easy to cook, colorful on the plate, and work as an appetizer or entrée. We use them for our catering events, and a version has even made it into our to-go line of products at Scripps. This dish has stood the test of time, and I still prepare it for people now, whenever I need a healthy, delicious dish with a “wow” factor. This iteration of the recipe uses tofu, giving the appearance of lettuce wraps made with meat products, but with the health benefits of eating plant-based. Its great blend of colors, textures, and flavors make it a truly well-balanced dish.

What was the inspiration for your recipe?

I created this recipe when I was starting out as a research and development chef — there are always nostalgic memories when you think of your first jobs in this industry. This meal uses flavors I grew up with in Quezon City, Philippines. From an early age, I cooked alongside my grandma and the rest of my family. Through the recipes I learned in childhood, I discovered my passion and the foundation for my food.

How did you promote your recipe?

We added the dish to our monthly wellness email that features healthy lifestyle adjustments. We included it on our website and shared it as one of our monthly recipe videos for employees. These recipes are part of our Healthy Eating for Healthy Living campaign, presented by myself and a sous-chef from our team, that encourages staff to prepare healthier versions of their favorite dishes. We also sold it as a chef special at our cafés and offered it in our catering menu.

About the chef

Born and raised in the Philippines, Reyes moved to the United States to pursue his culinary career. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, he worked the restaurant circuit in Los Angeles and was hired as the research and development chef for Sunfare, a health food home delivery service. He moved to San Diego to become executive chef and director of culinary services at Scripps Health, where he leads a team of incredibly talented chefs that care not only for their patients, but also staff and visitors throughout the entire Scripps system. He is working on sharing his passion with the world through writing his cookbook memoir titled “HOME.”

Every year, Health Care Without Harm partners with the Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change program, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Johnson & Wales University to host the Health Care Culinary Contest. Recipes go through two rounds of judging in order to establish five finalists. The final round is held at Johnson & Wales University’s culinary program, where students and staff prepare each dish. A panel of judges tastes and scores each recipe to choose the winner.

We will announce the winning chef and serve their recipe at CleanMed, the premier national conference for leaders in health care sustainability.



Health Care Without Harm

Health Care Without Harm seeks to transform health care worldwide so the sector reduces its environmental footprint and becomes a leader in the global movement.