In a typical month, food service coordinator A.J. Klein is responsible for ordering food, staff scheduling, and other food service paperwork for up to 2,750 meals at the Redwood Area Hospital; however, when he’s not behind his desk, Klein can often be found in the kitchen, creating a special sauce, or cooking a daily special just for the staff.
In a typical month, A.J. Klein is responsible for creating up to 2,750 meals at the Redwood Area Hospital. As the food service coordinator, Klein is in charge of ordering food, staff scheduling, and other food service paperwork. But when he’s not behind his desk, Klein can often be found in the kitchen, creating a special sauce, or cooking a daily special just for the staff. “I had worked in restaurants in college, and always liked it quite a bit,” he said last week. “Once when I got a job in a Mexican restaurant, I thought it was the greatest job ever.” After high school, Klein went to culinary school in Au Claire, Wisconsin. While working as a chef at a Wisconsin country club, Klein learned how to serve large banquets. Later, as a team chef for the University of Wisconsin sports department, Klein often worked with sports nutritionists to create meals for the football, tennis, and other teams. “Before I moved to Redwood Falls, I was chef at the Landmark Bistro in Marshall,” said Klein. “My goal is to change the patients’ perceptions of what hospital food is. Hospital food is typically hard to make appealing to a patient every time,” said Klein. “When patients are ill or on medications, often their tastes change. If you’re on a medication that makes you nauseous, most food just isn’t going to be appealing. We want to give them more choice so if there’s something they would like more, we’ve got it.” Every patient staying in the hospital can put in a request for breakfast or lunch items, but not necessarily get them because of doctors’ orders. “Some patients eat badly at home, like diabetics eating sugar doughnuts. If they don’t get them here, they’ll get upset with us sometimes,” said Klein. “Every patient currently admitted comes with dietary orders right from the doctor, that are updated twice daily,” said Klein. Creating meals for hospital patients often requires the foods to be modified in some way. “For some patients we need to thicken the beverages to a honey-consistency so they can swallow them,” said Klein. Generally, food for patients is of the “comfort food” variety. “We still have ‘home-style’ meals,” said Klein. “Chicken enchiladas are probably the most exotic items we offer. For patients, we don’t want anything too spicy or overly seasoned, and we rarely add salt.” “I’m responsible for ordering food supplies for the dining room, for patients on the floor, and for the Seasons hospice,” he said last week. There’s more to the job than the dining room, though. The food service department also takes care of everything from making sure the emergency room is stocked with snacks for patients, to making coffee and scones for staff business meetings. “Every time there’s an in-house function, like a lunch-’n’-learn, or a seminar, we prepare those meals,” he said. At night, when the kitchen staff has gone home, the nurses have a small kitchenette available to get snacks such as bowls of cereal or fresh fruits. About 40 hospital staff members and visitors eat in the dining room every day. “For the employees, good food is a good morale booster,” said Klein. Klein develops the menus for the dining room for staff and visitors. The menu is currently on an eight-week cycle, with daily specials not allowed to the patients. “The specials are just for the staff because of dietary restrictions,” said Klein. “We might have fish or tator tots that exceed the calory limits for the patients. “There are certain specific diets we need to always have available, such as heart healthy, or diabetic.” In 2009, the same year Klein started at the hospital, the kitchen area was remodeled. “It hadn’t been updated in some ways since the hospital was built in the 1950s,” he said. Klein supervises a staff of four full-timers and two part-timers. To be allowed to cook for the hospital, all kitchen staff must be certified by the National Restaurant Association and the state of Minnesota for taking classes in healthy sanitation. The hospital kitchen staff create an average of 15-20 meals a day for patients, and perhaps another 4-6 meals a day for Seasons hospice patients. Caring Connections, the hospital’s adult day care facility, usually requires another 5-10 meals a day. “We’re (classified as) a critical access hospital, so we’re reimbursed by Medicare for meals,” said Klein. One meal at the hospital, on average, is compensated by about $2.60. “Our food service is different than at a larger hospital that might have 150 beds,” said Klein. “On a slow week we might only have three patients on the floor, so we can take a little more care.”