Behind the Scenes at Avera McKennan: Kitchen Staff Defeats ‘Hospital Food’ Stereotype

Nick Buehner prepares macaroni and cheese in large volume.

Executive Chef Amanda Viau oversees a large staff of chefs and food preparation workers that prepare around 3,400 meals per day for the Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center, the Avera Behavioral Health Center and the Prairie Center.

The Avera McKennan kitchen has eight coolers and freezers, 11 ovens and five semi-truck deliveries of food per week. A smaller delivery on Monday, June 17, weighed in at more than 7,500 pounds. On an average day, the cafeteria will serve 50 pounds of potatoes, and that’s just the mashed variety.

“Large volume. That’s the name of the game down here,” said Nick Buehner, one of Viau’s chefs who has worked at the main hospital for the past eight years.

While the kitchen makes huge quantities, it’s not the Jell-o cups most people associate with hospital food.

The morning I visited the kitchen, Buehner’s making Gouda macaroni and cheese. In a pot the size of an oven and measurements in gallons and pounds, it is clear this is not your average meal making.

His four-ingredient Gouda macaroni and cheese is made on-site.

“It’s like what Grandma used to make,” Buehner said with a smile. “She didn’t use the box and powder.”

Individual Menus

The kitchen also caters to 27 different diets, from two-gram sodium, diabetic, and pediatric diets, to providing food for those with allergies or religious considerations.

If a patient has a specific request for a food item, and the kitchen doesn’t have it, they’ll make an effort to get it for them, even if it means running to a grocery store.

Viau has gotten coconut water with lemongrass for a patient, and the kitchen once even made matzo ball soup.

Between cooking large amounts of food and the individual request for a grilled cheese sandwich, the staff of six chefs stays very busy.

Kitchen Sense

Buehner and Viau both started working in kitchens in high school.

For Viau, the reason she got into food service was out of utility.

“There’s nowhere, other than food service, where you can use all five senses everyday of your life,” Viau said.

The kitchen enjoys trying new foods and celebrating holidays, no matter how obscure.

Sure, they served corned beef for St. Patrick’s Day and Mexican food for Cinco de Mayo, but they’re also observing National Lasagna Day on July 27th.

On Viau’s desk is a small plastic cup labeled “fairy dust” that looks awfully similar to all-purpose flour. One inquiry later, I learn she often finds surprise ingredients on her culinary demonstrations cart, left by one of her chefs.  Unicorn tears are another item in one of Viau’s recipes.

“In our environment, we are busy, very busy, so these little things that cost nothing brighten our spirits and comraderie,” Viau said. “This is hard work, but the best work on the planet.”

Avera Fast Facts

–       230 employees in both food & nutrition and kitchen

–       The Avera McKennan kitchen is open 24/7

–       In one week, the kitchen goes through:

  • 36 cases of chicken
  • 144 cases of milk

By Kristina Johnson

Marketing Intern at Avera McKennan

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