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Just what the doctor ordered – better hospital food

May 16, 2012
Marcy Brown
While most people associate hospital food with Jell-O cubes and runny oatmeal, Hoag Hospital Irvine’s? cafeteria features a decidedly unhospital-like menu of gourmet internationally inspired dishes. 

The idea to diversify the menu came from Indonesian-born Executive Sous Chef Kasan Soewono. 
“We want the menu to meet the desires and tastes of the community,” says Soewono, 45, a Heritage Park resident. “Pot roast and beef stroganoff aren’t as popular inIrvine as they are in Newport Beach.” 
In his effort to transform the cafeteria into a dining destination, he asked employees to provide recipes for their favorite homemade dishes. He also invented a few of his own. The experiment started a few months ago, when operating-room nurse Zary Kayhan-Mahd offered her grandmother’s recipe for the Persian stew, Beef Mushroom Khoresh. 
Soewono made a giant pot. The dietician loved it. So did several doctors and nurses, who raved about the authentic flavor. Customers liked it, too. Word spread. It’s now one the hospital’s better-selling meals. And it costs less than $5. 
A fan of Cuban cuisine, radiology manager Alexandra Alonzo offered a recipe for pollo asado Cubano, another crowd pleaser. The hospital menu now includes chicken tikka masala (Indian), beef pho (Vietnamese), chicken tanjine (Moroccan) and pork chimichurri (Argentinian). 
Sure, hamburgers and fried chicken are still staples. But sales reports show that customers prefer Soewono’s specials. Sales have doubled in the past 18 months to 1,200 meals per day. About 300 go to patients who receive a different menu than the public – unless they get a physician’s note. Even then, dietitians work with hospital staff to cater tastier meals to patients’ needs and to support healthy eating (for instance, Soewono replaced the heavy cream in the Jerusalem chicken with low-fat sour cream). 
Of course, not all dishes make it out of the test kitchen. He has struggled to perfect the Filipino sour stew dish sinigang na baboy. Some think it lacks ample onion while others want more ginger and garlic. 
But other dishes, such as his bulgogi sope – a Korean beef served on Mexican corn bread – are simply irresistible. It’s his twist on a Korean-Mexican fusion taco served on the popular Kogi food trucks. Soewono substitutes “sope” in place of the taco shell and adds Asian slaw. 
The marinade on the hospital’s “Chef K’s BBQ chicken salad” mixes Asian hot sauces with traditional barbecue sauce for “a flavor sensation you can only experience here,” he says. Soewono is a fan of spicy chili sauces. 
He credits Newport Beach Executive Chef Sam Sellona for inspiring the experiment. 
And what’s the price range for the tasty cuisine? $3.50 to $5.50. 
Of course, the hospital’s primary mission remains serving the health needs of the community. 
The food is just dessert. 
Marcy Brown is executive director of operations at Hoag Hospital Irvine. 
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