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ITHACA, NY — Scratch cooking, a chef mentality, and a winning mac n’ cheese recipe are just some of the ingredients that make The Garden Café at Cayuga Medical Center a welcome respite, and comfort food champ.

“We’re the farthest thing from ‘hospital food,’” said Executive Chef Jim Durkee. “I think the hospital realized a while ago the importance of food in a hospital setting. You don’t get a lot of choices in a hospital, you’re getting stuck and poked and told what to do, the food part of it you at least get a choice.”

That choice starts in the kitchen, Durkee said, where he is given the flexibility to experiment with dishes like Cajun pasta salad, pierogie specials, and a wide array of nourishing (and award-winning) soups and stews.

In fact, Cayuga Medical Center has placed in the Annual Great Downtown Ithaca Chili Cook-off at least four times, and won the Foodnet Meals on Wheels Mac ‘n Cheese Bowl two out of three years running in the Meat category for their “Medicine Man” recipe.

“We don’t do it to win ‘em. The reason we do all this stuff is we like being out in the community,” said Durkee.

The CMC dining staff is busy all year long with local events like Taste of the Nation for No Kid Hungry, the Alzheimer’s Association An Evening to Remember benefit, and the Cancer Resource Center 5k run/walk pancake breakfast.

“When people say ‘Do you feed your patients like this?’ it’s great to say ‘As a matter of fact, we try to, we do,’” Durkee said. “I’m very lucky: I’ve got a lot of good people, a lot of good cooks and chefs back there, people that care about what they’re doing.”

Nutrition and Dining employee Kevin Wright stirs meat for the annual employee barbecue. Photo provided.
Nutrition and Dining employee Kevin Wright stirs meat for the annual employee barbecue. Photo provided.

A West hill best-kept secret

CMC’s Nutrition and Dining serves not only patient dining and community events, but internal catering and multiple retail locations. The Garden Café is the main eatery on CMC’s East Campus, while the Garden Café Express in the main hospital lobby serves coffee and fresh-baked pastries, and grab and go items.

“Somebody said a long time ago that we’re Ithaca’s best kept secret because nobody would expect us to do what we do up here because we’re a hospital,” said Durkee.

But many of the Café’s guests are commuters dropping by to pick up a quart of chicken soup for dinner, and neighboring business workers enjoying lunch on the patio for the taco salad and lake views.

“We’re here for our guests and our patients, but the public can really benefit from our low prices up here,” he said.

In addition to favorites like giant omelettes and London broil, Cayuga Healthy Choice meals rotate daily. These dishes include low-fat and low-sodium specials like marinated grilled chicken breast with herbed fettuccine. Chef Durkee also makes sure to have some gluten-free options available, like this fall’s chicken fajita wild rice soup.

“We hopefully hit just about every single want and need. We’ll do whatever we have to do to make the patient the food that they want. If we gotta run to Wegmans to do something special for them, nobody hesitates,” Durkee said.

The Garden Cafe at Cayuga Medical Center. Photo provided.
The Garden Café at Cayuga Medical Center. Photo provided.

Renovation and innovation

“This was going to be a one year job for me,” Durkee said. “It was wickedly outdated. When I came through for my interview, I came in the doors here and I peeked into the cafeteria and it was four cinder block walls and some stainless steel. I thought ‘This will be a quick interview’ kind of thing.”

Before the renovation in 2005, The Garden Café was just what you might expect from a typical hospital cafeteria. At the time of Durkee’s interview 13 years ago, it was the prospect of those renovations that attracted him to the job. The space is now open and inviting, with warm colors, curved counters and lots of natural light streaming in from the patio outside.

“It’s kind of homey, I think. You can read people’s feelings, you can see it pretty much on their face, and they feel comfortable when they walk in here. That’s what’s nice,” said Durkee.

Before landing at Cayuga Medical Center, Durkee worked for Cornell Dining for 10 years before opening his own catering business and restaurant. He opened his restaurant in Homer in the same building that his family had its first commercial bakery in a century earlier.

“My great-grandfather had taken ill, and my great-grandmother was cooking, baking bread and stuff for neighbors, making extra money,” Durkee explained.

What began in the back of their house grew into the largest bakery on the east coast by the 1970, employing ~350 people.

While Durkee decided to leave his own restaurant to spend more time with his children, he brought a restaurant mentality to what had previously been more of an institutional kitchen.

“When I first started, there were a lot of steamers here, prepping food a couple days out. As times have changed we’ve added char-broilers and convection ovens,” he said.

“I’d put my staff up against any restaurant in this town and we can keep up with them.”

Nutrition and Dining Services is a department of Cayuga Medical that impacts almost every other department and individual who work or visits CMC. Our scope of service includes patient dining, internal...