With a background in classic European cooking and an appreciation of American regional cuisine—especially Southwestern cuisine—Gary Vorstenbosch seems to be the perfect chef to oversee the menu at an upscale hospital foodservice operation. And that indeed is his assignment—or at least part of it— at Plano (TX) Presbyterian Hospital, where he is executive chef.
Vorstenbosch oversees Plano Presbyterian's patient dining program, which now consists entirely of a room service approach— with a menu of some 25 daily entree choices— as well as the retail cafeteria, catering operations as well as foodservice at a specialty surgery hospital across the street. He will soon be busier as the daily patient census of 200 is expected to nearly double when a new patient tower opens before the end of this year. In addition, a second retail cafeteria is planned for next year in a new building currently under construction.
Recently he earned another resume highlight when he and Plano Presbyterian Nutrition Services Director Mary Spicer took first place in the 2005 Culinary Competition sponsored by the National Society for Healthcare Foodservice Management (HFM).
How did you end up becoming a chef? I grew up in the Netherlands and fell into the business because my dad worked for a beer company— I used to go to restaurants all the time with him. Also, my grandparents had their own cafè. In the Netherlands, when you're 12 you basically decide what school you want to go to, what profession you want to learn, and I chose to become a cook.
Did you start your career in Europe? Yes, I worked in restaurants and hotels. One requirement of the school was that each of the four years you have to work in a different restaurant. That way, you can learn different things from different chefs. They were mostly classical European, mostly French.
How did you get to the U.S.? When I was 22 or 23, I came here for a vacation, traveled around a little bit and met my future wife. We ended up going back and forth between Europe and the United States. I had gotten interested in Southwestern cooking, so after we got married I thought I would work here for a couple of years and then bring it back to the Netherlands, open my own place and bring that knowledge to European cooking. I really got to appreciate different American cuisines. In Europe when I grew up, American chefs were seen as untrained, but I thought the food was great.
There was no exposure to American cuisine when you grew up? Well, McDonald's and places of that sort but no serious restaurants based on American culinary traditions like Southwestern or Mexican. Years later, when I went back, some had begun to open.
When did you settle here in the U.S.? Around 1994. I had been going back and forth because I had family back in the Netherlands, but eventually we decided to settle here. I never did get to open that Southwestern restaurant in Europe.
Did you settle in Texas because it's where you're wife is from? Actually, she's from Romania.
So how does someone from the Netherlands and someone from Romania wind up in Plano, Texas? Her family had settled here. I'm pretty adaptable and can live anywhere.
How did you end up working for a hospital? I saw an opening online and applied. I had been working every holiday, every weekend, every night in the restaurants and hotels, and wanted to start a family and have some sort of family life. Also, I saw an opportunity to bring some of the things I'd been doing to the people eating in the hospital. I was originally hired to do demonstration cooking in the cafeteria.
What are some of the more interesting things on your room service menu? We have a wild mushroom enchilada, a tostada of beef tenderloin with a portabella burgundy sauce, a grilled salmon with a black bean basmati rice and a pineapple cactus relish, and individually hand-rolled lasagna. Everything is made from scratch.
I see you've internalized that Southwestern cuisine fascination... We mix it up with French, Southwestern and a little bit of Latin cooking. Our clientele is a bit upscale so we can get a little crazy.
What are the most popular choices? The beef tenderloin and the enchiladas. We also have a pork tenderloin with a sweet potato risotto and a bourbon-infused demiglaze that's very popular. So are some of our salads.
What do you like to cook at home? It's a funny thing but my wife really likes the stews that are put on fried potatoes back in the Netherlands, even though that's not what she grew up with.
Stews? Yes, like meat stews that are poured over fries. There are fast food places that specialize in different stews served over fries.
Have you tried serving something like that at the hospital? I've made it for my staff and they love it, but I haven't tried it in the cafeteria. I don't want to scare them.