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10 big questions for a chef who redefined healthy food

Cary Neff, pioneering healthcare chef, shares his perspective on healthcare dining’s changing role, the dynamic between retail and patient menus and the one skill he swears will prove valuable to all segments of foodservice.

Decades ago as a restaurant chef, Cary Neff, chef, author, teacher and leader of Morrison Healthcare’s culinary team, didn’t like the direction “healthier” food was moving with artificial ingredients and empty promises, so he helped redefine it with a new, conscious approach.

Today, he’s continuing that thought process as Morrison Healthcare’s VP of corporate culinary support, using food to “heal, nourish, comfort and educate those we serve,” he says. “I believe in uplifting the caregiver, visitors and healthcare associates with adventurous and appealing foods to refuel, recharge, celebrate and comfort.”

Next month, Morrison Healthcare’s Chef Appreciation Week will spotlight standout chefs and the stories behind the service they provide every day. Neff, who will be honored during the event, shared a bit of his story with us, from his Chicago roots to his interpretation of Nouvelle Cuisine and spa cuisine into the healthier outlook on the table for healthcare dining today.

Q: For a long time, you’ve been ahead of the curve with the idea of food for wellness, with your Conscious Cuisine cookbook/guiding philosophy. Do you think being in the healthcare industry made you come to this conclusion sooner than the rest of the culinary world?

A: I launched the premise of Conscious Cuisine before joining Morrison Healthcare. First as executive chef of a fine-dining restaurant in Scottsdale, and later by refining its tenets in 1995 at Miraval Life in Balance Resort [a holistic spa in Dana Point, Calif.]. Morrison and the healthcare industry as a whole gave me more purpose and determination.

Q: What are the main ideas behind Conscious Cuisine?

A: Conscious Cuisine is about being mindful and exciting the senses with whole, sustainable foods that deliver great flavor and balanced nutrition.

Q: Before you became a chef, what was your early life like? What was your relationship to food within your family and community?

A: I grew up in Chicago as the youngest of five boys. My earliest food memory is in my great grandmother’s backyard garden and the many meals she made with the season’s harvest—and little meat. My mom is an exceptional cook and master of slow-cooked hearty meals that fueled my dad when he returned from work, as well as my brothers and I when we came in from play.

Q: When you first started thinking about Conscious Cuisine, was it an “a-ha” moment or was it more of an accumulation of recipes and kitchen truths?

A: It was an “a-ha” moment of certainty. I noticed how badly we—the food industry—were failing in our attempt to provide customers with healthier food options. The industry was removing fat and calories, while adding highly processed artificial ingredients, flavorings and colors, then touting it as “healthy.”

Q: Your training in classical French cooking and the tenets of Nouvelle Cuisine helped your vision of Conscious Cuisine. How did Nouvelle Cuisine change people’s perceptions of “fancy restaurant food?” Was that a step in the right direction?

A: Nouvelle Cuisine focused on simpler cooking methods with fresh, seasonal fruits and vegetables and abandoning heavy roux-based sauces in favor or light and refreshing vegetable purees, oils, vinegars, broths and juices. I saw this as an opportunity to redefine spa cuisine and excite the entire food industry. But Nouvelle Cuisine in the ’70s and ’80s was attractively presented as works of art…that was unfortunately replaced by enormous portions and heavy, rich sauces in the ’90s. I knew to redefine health and wellness in cooking, I had to be more purposeful. Miraval taught me the practice of mindfulness and being present in the moment.

Q: The movement to reduce food waste and think more in terms of sustainability seems to be going hand-in-hand with the idea of conscious eating that benefits the body.

A: Food for wellness also includes what we do in our communities…I’m especially proud of our efforts to reduce food waste and help those who go without food. Forty percent of all produced food in the U.S. ends up wasted and in landfills. That’s an alarming number considering the environmental impact and the number of Americans who are food insecure. With our size and scale, we have a responsibility to make a huge difference in our hospitals and the communities we serve.

Q: What advice would you give young people just starting out in the food industry and what do you think the focus on culinary schools should be to best prepare future chefs?

A: My humble advice to both young people starting out and in culinary schools is the same: Get a job! Seek employment at entry-level position in hospitality as quickly as possible. Learning the value of customer service, teamwork and taking personal responsibility are foundations for a great career. Also: nutrition education. Today’s chefs must be well-versed in allergy awareness and the nutritional attributes of foods as much as cooking skills. Culinary and nutrition competence is valuable in every sector of the foodservice industry.

Q: How would you describe the dynamic between the retail and patient sides of hospital dining?

A: The healthcare foodservice energy will be redefined by the synergy achieved in patient and retail dining. Hospital food was once defined as nutrients prescribed by doctors to registered dietitians and food production managers. Morrison menus are designed by certified chefs with robust restaurant and hotel backgrounds who partner with our registered dietitians and food and beverage managers.

Q: What’s a lesson that you’ve learned as a manager/boss?

A: Spend more time and energy defining the “why” for new programs and initiatives. The promise of “what” the intended expectations will be isn’t enough to excited culture change.

Q: What’s your favorite world cuisine to cook at home?

A: Classic French without a doubt. Pot au feu, confit, roulades, meuniere sauce…that’s still my favorite.

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