When John Mayer visits patient rooms wearing his chef’s coat, the patients sometimes ask what kind of doctor he is. It makes sense — chefs don’t usually visit patient rooms.
But Mayer checks in with patients daily in the 25-bed hospital to ask what they thought about their meals. He believes it improves the patient experience, and his culinary program, to make these kinds of one-on-one connections.
The hospital’s CEO, John Morgan, agrees. “Food is such a central theme to what we do and who we are in this deep South,” he says. “Food truly is medicine…I can’t say strongly enough how important [this food program] has been to the progression of this hospital and the continuity of care.”
Mayer has run the kitchen at Jackson Parish Hospital in Jonesboro, Louisiana since 2021, when the hospital switched from its self-managed program to Culinary Services Group. Morgan notes that the company was “aligned with our thought process. We wanted an on-site chef with experience.”
Mayer certainly has it. He’s worked in restaurants, bars and nightclubs his entire career. It’s a big change for him — and a positive one. “I’ve never done this side of the food industry before,” he says, “and I’ll just tell you what…it’s been very rewarding. It’s something I should have been doing for the last 40 years.”
The hospital staff, visitors and patients seem to be similarly enamored with Mayer and his team. Routinely, people in the community time their hospital visits to coincide with lunch and dinner. The menu is packed with Southern comfort foods and features Cajun dishes regularly.
One week in January, entrées included chicken and sausage jambalaya; fried catfish; smothered pork chops; shrimp and crab penne pasta; and “Penny’s Pot Roast.” Each entrée is paired with complementary sides and desserts, like greens, cornbread and bread pudding with the jambalaya and hush puppies, fried okra and apple cobbler with the catfish. They serve about 50 lunches daily. If fried chicken is on the menu, it’s closer to 100.
Sometimes, they add dishes to the menu at the request of staff members. “I did chicken parmesan because one of the nurses said she really missed it,” Mayer says.
For staff, the kitchen serves a full traditional breakfast every morning that includes scrambled eggs, sausage patties, bacon, grits and scratch biscuits.
For overnight staff, Mayer and his team fill an overnight cooler with salads, sandwiches, yogurts, desserts and other grab-and-go items. “We break down a lot of food and make it accessible,” Mayer says. “That’s been popular with the entire staff…there’s always something available.” They currently use a low-tech solution for payment but plan to upgrade to an electronic kiosk in the future.
Patient meals follow a four-week rotating menu that follows stricter guidelines, though it sometimes runs parallel to the retail menu. Patient meals have less sugar and salt and may be flavored with different spices. To make patient meals feel less institutional, the kitchen includes name-brand sauces and flavorings on every tray, such as Mrs. Dash, Duke’s and Log Cabin.
Another way the culinary staff builds connections is by making a special end-of-stay meal for long-term patients. Mayer and his team once made, at a patient's request, a surf-and-turf meal with cornbread dressing. The patient, who had sent every other meal back to the kitchen during his stay, was thrilled.
On another occasion, Morgan recalls, a patient “refused to be discharged until we could get him a, quote-unquote, ‘bucket of that soup’ that Chef John made.” When they sent him on his way, he did so with soup in hand.
Asked how he approaches cost, Mayer says they keep an eye on prices and focus on building items from scratch, as often as they can, while keeping a handle on labor. “Don’t let the company you buy it from clean and cut it for you…Productivity is one of the foundations of what we do.” The kitchen cuts their own sandwich meats, makes scratch biscuits and creates their own soups. They also nurture relationships with food vendors and know where to go to get good local produce.
As part of the culinary upgrade, they upgraded the kitchen with a new slip-proof floor, a new fryer and a retooled line to help patient meals reach the rooms hotter. They also redesigned their dining area this year, replacing institutional tables and uncomfortable chairs with 36-inch butcher block round tables, comfy seats and votives.
“You look out there and people are happy and smiling and eating,” Mayer says. “We must be doing something right.”