Inside of the Ahuja Medical Center, part of University Hospitals’ network of campuses, Chef John Selick prepares his plan for the week. His innovative and health-based approach to hospital food, something more often dreaded than appreciated, has helped facilitate UH in its long-term goal of wellness education and preventative practices for patients and their families.
After 13 years working for Sodexo Healthcare Services, Selick recently applied for a position with a competing hospital, but his current employers presented him an unexpected counter offer. In his new role as Senior Culinary Manager, he will be taking on meal planning for all UH facilities. “I want to emphasize the use of more seasonal recipes, using fresh vegetables that are in season and work with our purveyors to bring in local produce,” the chef says of his long-term plan to unify offerings across the system.
After working for The Ritz Carlton and fine dining destinations in D.C., Selick had plenty of obstacles to overcome at first on the Main Campus, but it was as Executive Chef of Ahuja that he was able to expand his vision for operations.
“This was a chance to start fresh,” he says. “I didn’t inherit any old mistakes or ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mentality. I hired everybody, I bought everything, wrote all the menus, and I tried to do things the right way.”
Working with Farmer Lee Jones at the Chef’s Garden and Culinary Vegetable Institute endowed Selick with an appreciation for sustainable agriculture. And beets. “I was helping out, doing their dinners, and I really thought that the beet was my favorite vegetable that they grew. The flavor is just so nuanced,” he says. Beets now feature prominently in a variety of dishes and fresh-cut at the salad bar.
“People are afraid of weird food,” he understands. “But it’s a chance to make a difference in people’s lives. You can’t change the way they live during a hospital stay, but you can introduce brown rice or quinoa to them.”
Deep-fried and frozen foods and soda were items that Selick proposed to eliminate.
When he first started developing the kitchen at Ahuja, he may have ruffled some feathers. “It was sort of a culture shock,” he explains, transitioning from preparing food for a hundred to 4,000 in a cafeteria setting. He demanded his staff step up their game by making more from scratch, which had previously been deemed costly and time consuming.
Rarely do we think of the person behind our meals at health facilities, however Selick is working hard to put a name and face to his work. As the President of the American Culinary Federation chapter in Cleveland, he is committed to continuing education for chefs working in corporate, dive, or fine-dining settings.
“The ACF is a network of chefs where the purpose is to make sure that it remains a profession,” he says. “Now, chefs are rock stars but back in the '70s it was considered domestic work in a lot of ways. Some employers, like UH, they look for certified chefs because they know those chefs will understand management, sanitation, food costs; they treat it as a business.”
Chef Selick uses his position not only as a platform for internal change at UH, but to help the community by participating in Autism Speaks and Cleveland Food Bank fundraisers annually. Working in a hospital, he says, allows him to see firsthand the impact of giving back. “I really feel like my job is important. I want to come home and make my kids proud.”