Saturday, June 15, 2024

Thanks for the memories! May 2010-March 2020

Get the local dirt in our northwest corner • Regrowing in 2023!

Farm Fresh Fridays: An interview with Chef Chris Johnson of United General Hospital

Sep 16th, 2010 | Category: Community, Features

Chef Chris Johnson, of United General Hospital, with Dave Hedlin and Kai Ottesen of Hedlin Farm, a third generation, 400-acre Skagit Valley farm. Photo by Matt Brown (used by permission from United General Hospital, copyright 2010)

interview by Becca Schwarz Cole

Chris Johnson, food services director at United General Hospital has transformed Fridays at the hospital’s Coho Cafe to Farm Fresh Fridays, creating a delicious menu full of locally grown and produced ingredients, served fresh. So fresh, he purchases the ingredients the day before at the Skagit WholeSale Market at the Co-op in Mount Vernon, meeting with the very folks who grow and nurture the food, just miles from his kitchen.

First, please tell us about your culinary experiences and how you came into the position as Food Services Director at United General Hospital.
I’ve always enjoyed cooking and when it came time for me to choose a career I decided to attend Skagit Valley College’s culinary arts program. I had heard very good things about it and it was an ideal fit for me personally. I began working at the Rockfish Grill in Anacortes almost immediately after I began the program after I finished my training I helped open the (now defunct) Sweetwater Bistro in downtown Mt. Vernon when the restaurant closed I worked for a local catering company Avenue Catering for a while. I then reunited with an old friend and mentor Silas Reynolds at La Conner Brewing Company, eventually I took over the kitchen at LBC. I was told about the opening at the hospital and encouraged to apply. Now, when one thinks of hospital food they don’t exactly think of culinary excellence. I did a little research and found out that there are a number of hospitals across the country that are stepping up there culinary “game” so to speak. I decided to apply and see where it would take me and so here I am.

What inspired you to incorporate local foods at the Coho Café? How did the idea for Farm Fresh Fridays and other specials come about?
I’ve always enjoyed working with the fresh local produce and have tried for years to make it more prominent in my menus. I was encouraged, by the administration at United General, to increase the healthfulness of the food. This seemed an ideal time to introduce my customers to local produce. I feel there is no better way to improve the health of our community than to serve the freshest ingredients possible; it also helps the health of our community to support local farms, ranchers and producers. When we feed ourself real, whole food rather than industrial processed food we benefit not only nutritionally but environmentally and socially as well. It’s a holistic approach.  We are very fortunate to live in such a bountiful area of the world, it’s our job to sustain that.

Can you describe a recent sample menu for our readers?
Our menu last week featured two different options for our guests. We had:
• Classic Meatloaf made with Skagit River Ranch beef and eggs and flavored with celery from Hedlin’s, carrots from Ralph’s Greenhouse and onions from Sakuma Brothers; fresh green beans and yellow wax tossed with just a touch of Golden Glen Butter garlic (unfortunately not local; and Mashed Yukon Gold potatoes from Ralph’s Greenhouse.
Or (for something more exotic)
• Grilled Lamb Kebabs made from Hidden Meadow Ranch lamb legs; roasted tomatoes and zucchini -Pure Nelida Farm; roasted Ozette Fingerling potatoes with feta cheese from Ralph’s Greenhouse and Golden Glen Creamery.
Dessert was very simple but such a great end to the meal:
• Blueberries N’ Cream [made with] Sakuma Brothers’ berries, Golden Glen Creamery cream and Bruce Bowen Bees honey.
Nothing really fancy, but then great food that is fresh and tasty doesn’t need to be embellished. I really like to offer a variety of options for my guests so you won’t see repeats very often.
Our salad bar also features items from Hedlin’s, Samish Bay Cheese, Sakuma Brothers, Sky Harvest, Ralph’s Greenhouse, Golden Glen Creamery and any other farm I can get food from.

What are some of the resources or events within the region you use/attend to find and purchase local foods? Do you enjoy meeting and connecting with those who grow and produce the food?
I belong to Puget Sound Food Network which is an incredible resource for anyone looking to buy or sell local. I also attend the Skagit Wholesale Market every Thursday 8:30-10 a.m. at the Skagit Coop. It’s the highlight of my week, I love going to the market to meet the folks who produce the food. It really adds a human element into the food system, something that was lost long ago. It’s nice to have at least a small part in bringing back that human element.

Are there any local ingredients you have yet to find or incorporate into your dishes that you’d like to?
I’d love to be able to find someone that grows sweet potatoes or yams of some variety, though I think western Washington doesn’t have a long enough growing season for them. Perhaps some more tomatoes. But that’s about it, the variety that the farmers around here grow is astounding. It’s an absolute joy to work with the bounty they produce.

What are some of your personal favorite dishes and desserts that you’ve served up?
Oh jeez that’s like trying to pick a favorite child… dessert I can name two that are my favorite: Triple berry short cake made with Lentz emmer flour, local berries and local cream, sweetened with local raw honey or yogurt custard with berries and local yogurt gives it just a slight tang.
As for the favorite dishes… nothing beats a simple meal of roasted pastured raised chicken with roasted fingerlings and either broccoli with garlic and feta or kale dressed with lemon, olive oil and garlic.

With fall around the corner, and the holidays to follow, do you have any specials up your sleeve you can share with us?
Hmmm, it’s rare for me to think that far ahead. I can tell you that the fall veggies are some of my favorites. I love to work with the winter squashes, mushrooms, and root vegetables to name a few. Fall means comfort food; there will definitely be lots of stews and braised dishes.
We’ve got an event coming up at United General called ‘Imagine’ that I will be creating a cookbook for. I will most likely put in a few “locavore” recipes for the holidays. People think that when the sun goes away then we have to start eating marginal produce from 1,500 miles away, it’s more a matter of changing your perspective and being open to changes.

As the big harvest season winds down, will you continue to work with local foods (as best you can) in and through the winter months?
Oh absolutely, I’ve already got a few tricks up my sleeve to keep us eating local into the winter. One of the tastiest dishes I like to make is filling a winter squash (usually sugar pie pumpkins) with a rich stew of root veggies, squash and mushrooms and topping it with a bit of puff pastry or a biscuit. I’ve met a local distributor that distributes grains and legumes from eastern Washington and Montana. I also plan on using any local fruit or vegetable that freezes well and let’s not forget the delicious cruciferous vegetables that grow here almost year-round.

How have patrons at the Café and hospital management responded to the use of local food? How many meals do you typically serve?
People love it and the hospital management has been very supportive. I certainly couldn’t do it if I didn’t have the response I’ve had thus far. We typically serve around 150 meals for lunch but Fridays have seen about a 25 percent increase in traffic.

Some have the idea that serving local food costs more, especially if provided in large quantity by a big company or institution (a hospital, for example). You’re able to keep a very affordable price for such good food at the Café. How?
It does have an added cost, but when you add in the social and environmental costs, local food costs us less. I recently saw an article about a hospital in Chicago that switched to grass fed, antibiotic and hormone free meat. They mentioned that it increased there food expenditures by $67,000 per year, that’s about the cost of treating one person with MRSA. That’s pretty astounding. As for keeping the price affordable, we don’t make a huge profit margin and we like to keep the cost low to reward people who choose to eat the healthy food. I’d love to see restaurants offer more local dishes, when people are willing to come to a hospital to get a good local meal, how much more willing will they be to stop by there favorite neighborhood restaurant to enjoy a local meal.

Please give us your take on local food availability in our Northwest corner. How good is it? How would you describe the diversity and quality of Northwest farmers and food producers?
I honestly believe it’s the best in the country. The farmers in our corner of the world do a great job of growing a high quality, diverse culture of plants. We don’t have the “fame” that Napa Valley has but I’d put our produce up against anything that comes out of CA. That’s right, I’m throwing down the gauntlet Alice Waters and Thomas Keller! HA!

Anything you’d like to add?
I’d just like to thank you for this opportunity to talk with you and I hope that we can convince at least one more person to eat local for at least one meal a week.

Leave a Comment