Aramark’s Top Hospital Chef Runs the Show at Einstein
One in an ongoing series.
The words “culinary excellence” and “hospital food” don’t exactly go together like bacon and eggs. But Tracey A. Hopkins Sr., Executive Chef at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia, may be named the top chef employed by Aramark in the United States – and that’s not small potatoes.
Hopkins won first place in the Healthcare Hospitality culinary competition earlier this year. He and two other top division finishers will compete against winners from Aramark’s four other business lines – education, leisure, sports and entertainment and business dining – at the Inaugural National Finals of Aramark’s Culinary Excellence Competition. The event is scheduled to take place this November at the corporation’s global headquarters in Philadelphia.
Admittedly, Hopkins didn’t win the competition with the kinds of dietary restrictions that govern hospital fare. He turned 16 ingredients in a basket into a gourmet menu, including Jerusalem artichoke soup, roasted quail and Portobello mushroom salad. He and the other competitors were given 30 minutes to create and write a four-course menu, and four hours to complete their meals. They were evaluated by judges from the American Culinary Federation, the largest professional chefs’ association in North America.
“I’m used to writing menus, so it wasn’t much pressure at all,” Hopkins says. “There was nothing I wasn’t familiar with.”
Of course, Hopkins’ task at Einstein isn’t to prepare highly seasoned gourmet dishes, given the dietary restrictions of hospitalized patients. And yes, thank you, he knows the food can be bland.
“We have to give sick people food to make them well,” says Hopkins, who’s been at Einstein for 10 years. “We take pride in the way we cook our food. It’s all fresh; we don’t buy anything pre-made. You get a good quality meal. It may not be sparkling with flavor, but it is a well-prepared meal.”
Hopkins supervises the preparation of 1,200 patient meals a day and food for the multitudes of visitors and staff who eat in the hospital cafeteria. He creates patient menus from corporate-issued, government-regulated recipes that he must follow to within a grain of salt. He supervises the 19 kitchen cooks and scores of other food service employees, prepares the menus, and rarely gets a chance to actually man the stove himself.
But make no mistake: the kitchen skills Hopkins learned as a child are very much intact. “When I was about 5 years old, my grandmother had this cast iron skillet on the stove, and she was cooking scrapple. She allowed me to turn over a piece of scrapple in the pan and I thought that was a big deal. I watched her and my mother cook and I developed a love for it.”
Hopkins was graduated from Baltimore’s International Culinary Arts Institute, worked for a time at the Kennedy Center and was the executive chef at the Philadelphia Art Museum for 12 years. He came to Einstein, through Aramark, in 2009. He has two sons, five grandchildren and guess who does most of the cooking at home? Hopkins’ wife, who also attended the culinary institute.
Hopkins grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and his specialty is making crab cakes, which he often does when preparing special meals at Einstein for retirement parties, graduations or anniversary dinners. His favorite meal is “pan-fried shrimp in cocktail sauce with an ear of sweet corn.”
What meal do patients like the best? Rotisserie chicken.
A favorite part of Hopkins’ job is doing rounding – visiting patients – at Einstein’s Willowcrest Nursing Home. “For me, that’s a labor of love,” he says. “I want to know how I can improve the food to make their stay better, make it more homelike. That part of the job I enjoy the most.”
The elderly patients of the nursing home remind Hopkins of his grandmother, and how the love for cooking she inspired in him may propel him and his team to be top bananas at the national Aramark competition.
“I know what I’m capable of doing,” he says – perhaps even making the words “culinary excellence” and “hospital food” go together like bacon and eggs.