Food is part science, part artistry but at St John’s Hospice it is 100% about caring for a patient’s needs and making food an essential element of patient health.
“It is never about sending up food to Bed 9. Every patient is an individual and we have a passion to make sure they get all the hydration and nutrition they need and that they enjoy the food,” says Executive Chef Lee Szukalski.
A lifetime career in five-star hotels and top London restaurants has equipped Executive Chef, Lee, with flair and a finely tuned awareness of flavours.
“This job is very challenging but incredibly rewarding,” he says. “We have ever changing needs from patients and we work hard to present food and beverages that taste fantastic and encourage them to eat and drink.
“To see them respond; regain their appetite and get a glow in their faces is so rewarding for all of us.
“I remember my Nan, who had dementia, being in a home and no-one could understand why she was refusing to eat when she sat down with the others. We figured out that she was being served just bowls of tasteless slop and she wanted what everyone else was having.
“It is about giving someone dignity. They may not be able to eat conventional meals and may be limiting in what textures they can swallow but that does not mean they should be denied the enjoyment of food.
“The beauty is that you can make pureed or mashed food tasty, colourful and appealing.”
Accommodating complex palliative diets
Lee and his talented Catering Team have the complex job of creating meals to accommodate a range of health conditions that impact palliative care patients’ abilities to swallow, chew and digest.
It is a task that varies daily and requires high levels of communication between catering teams and clinical staff. The challenge is to respond to care needs with imaginative, appetising and nutritious meals, snacks and drinks for our Hospice patients.
A balanced, healthy diet is particularly important for patients who may be struggling with their appetite or have a condition that makes swallowing and chewing painful or difficult.
The team’s culinary creativity ensures high quality, fresh food is served with five-star presentation – even a pureed meal can look like a fine-dining experience in their talented hands.
Culinary creativity helps patients get the hydration and nutrition that they need
Injecting style into diets that need to comply with care regulations and medical needs takes skill and the Hospice kitchen and Lee’s team is constantly on the lookout for innovations that make it easier for patients to get their nutrition.
Fruit flavoured ice cubes are a fun way to provide hydration when a patient is not drinking and jelly baby sweets on cocktail sticks can stimulate the taste buds as well as provide moisture.
A juice bar is provided on the ward with elderflower drinks and the recent addition of a turmeric, lemon and black pepper drink while the chefs are also pioneering grazing boxes for each patient with snacking ‘goodies’ they enjoy that also back a nutritional punch.
“They may not eat so much at meal times and the ‘little but often’ approach helps here. It could be as simple as a few blueberries in the box so they can dip in when they like,”
Getting to know our patients
Pre-pandemic, catering staff would visit and sit with patients to get to know their likes and dislikes to influence food selection and meal preparation.
“It is not just about what you give them; it is about what they want,” says Lee, 51, who first set foot in professional kitchens as a 12-year-old when he accompanied his kitchen engineer father on visits. “We look at their individual needs. There are lots of things to consider around nutrition and hydration and we are always looking to get fresh fruit and vegetables into everything we produce.”
The kitchen fine-tunes the fat content of foods and finesses their consistency depending on a patient’s often-changing needs, and all staff go through rigorous training and refreshers to keep pace with developments.
“We work really hard to produce food that patients want and like,” he adds. “We use natural ingredients and let the flavours do the talking. Food is an important part of the healing process.
“Producing meals that are pureed, minced or mashed is not a barrier to the food looking and tasting great – you will be amazed what can be achieved.
“Nine times out of ten, we can adapt anything on a regular menu to fit in whatever level of food and nutrition is required. We can put a pureed steak on a patient’s plate and they’ll still get the nutrients, calories, flavour and well-being of having a meal they enjoy.
“I’ve worked in lots of high-end restaurants and hotels where there is a great buzz but I get so much from this job and connecting with the patients.”
Cook with us and celebrity Chef, Cyrus Todiwala, OBE
St John’s Hospice has joined forces with celebrity chef Cyrus Todiwala OBE for an exclusive cook-a-long on Thursday 22nd April, 7-8 pm, where he will demonstrate and guide you through two authentically Indian, vegetarian dishes from his new cookbook.
Tickets are now on sale for a charitable donation of £50 (per household), with a goody bag included! Funds raised from this event will go towards catering costs to allow Executive Chef Lee and his entire team to continue creating and adapting individually made dishes that accommodate all kinds of complex palliative diets here at the Hospice.
Find more details and information on the two delicious dishes – book your ticket to cook along with Cyrus Todiwala and St John’s Hospice.