Small Town Guy Now a Gold Medalist

Small Town Guy Now a Gold Medalist

Paul Luttmann showing his Gold Medal form at the 2007 HFM Culinary Competition

Paul Luttmann grew up in a small South Dakota town and currently serves as executive chef for the Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center in Sioux Falls, SD.

The CIA grad recently brought some renown for his state, his institution and, not incidentally, for himself back from Tucson, AZ, where he bested some of the best chefs in the healthcare segment in the HFM Culinary Competition, winning the Gold Medal in partnership with his director, Mary Lou Paulson (in 2006, Luttmann and Paulson had won the Silver).

In his everyday job, Luttmann oversees culinary operations at two locations—the 490-bed main hospital as well as at a 110-bed behavioral health center about 10 miles away. Avera Hospital has a full cafeteria as well as a doctor’s lounge while the behavioral health facility has a more modest retail operation that takes advantage of some newer facilities Luttmann helped design (see below).

Between retail and patient feeding operations at the two sites, he is responsible for several thousand meals a day, as well as catering, much of which takes place at the hospital’s education institute. He oversees 25 employees.

What was your first foodservice job? When I was a teenager I worked in a steakhouse in a small town in South Dakota here, washing dishes and later cooking. I cooked there throughout high school.

How did you get the job? Well, in a town of 800 people there’s only about five places to work...

Was it working at the steakhouse that ignited your interest in cooking? Actually, the decision came much later. After high school I went to a technical school for automotive technology in Watertown, South Dakota. For the two years I was there, I was also working at a nearby hotel restaurant. After graduation I began looking into cooking as something more long-term. I remembered looking at a book in my high school guidance counselor’s office about the CIA, so I called them and applied. I was accepted and moved to New York.

So you completed the CIA? I graduated in March 1998, then came back to work at the Sheraton here in Sioux Falls. It’s attached to a 100,000-sq.ft. convention center and I was the banquet chef. Later I transferred to the Marriott in Madison, Wisconsin. I was the sous chef there for a year before moving back to Sioux Falls right after 9-11.

Where does healthcare foodservice come in? I was waiting for a job at the Sheraton to open up, doing some cooking here and there. when I saw an ad in the paper for this job with Avera McKennan. I happened to know the chef who was in the position, so I called him up and asked him about it. I was a little skeptical but I needed a job.

What was your perception of hospital foodservice at that time? That they were doing a lot of bland bulk cooking that probably wouldn’t have any expression. What brought me to cooking was doing great food that made people happy, so I didn’t think that would be there. But I don’t think I’d still be here if that was true.

So the reality was different... Yeah, you’re a big part of the patient’s day.

What was it like when you first got there? I think it took me almost a year to get acclimated to just the atmosphere of healthcare and learn my way around the diet orders and everything that encompasses cooking in healthcare.

What is your proudest accomplishment at Avera so far? Helping in the design of the kitchen at the behavioral health hospital we opened about a year and a half ago. That design helped put us in the 92nd percentile in Press-Ganey. We’re also exceeding our revenue expectations in retail. I’m just very happy with that project.

What about it is special? In the main hospital, the kitchen is bordering on being 50 years old. It’s all electric and steam—there’s no gas, no burners, so cooking can sometimes be a challenge. So the equipment we have at the new hospital is a breath of fresh air, and a lot of the credit goes to the administration for that. Part of what makes that hospital so successful is that the executive director of behavioral health and the director are wholeheartedly supportive of foodserivce and know it’s a major component in a patient’s daily activities.

What are some current culinary trends of particular interest to you? One thing is buying from local organic farmers. There’s a company near here called Seed Time & Harvest that delivers some absolutely fantasic fruits and vegetables to us every week, as well as fresh flowers. For example, the other week we got these great small field pickling cucumbers that were the best pickles I’ve had in years. We use most of it in the doctors’ and surgeons’ lounges and in catering because we create those menus every morning. Seed Time e-mails me a list of what they have on Monday night for Wednesday delivery and we use the product through the week.

Favorite food:
Grilled Ribeye Steak, medium to medium rare

Most memorable
restaurant experience: CIA’s Escoffier Restaurant on graduation day, especially the bottle of ‘88 Sainte-Emilion

Book recommendation:
Anthony Bourdain’s works, for their dry humor

Favorite movies:
The Big Night and The Big Lebowski

Non-cooking interests:
Spending time with wife and four children