Ben Duffy has found a rewarding culinary career in the healthcare segment.
Ben Duffy has impressed his boss. You might even say that's an understatement. “He is a real star,” raves Susan J. Barraclough, MS, RD, LDN. She is director of Nutrition & Food Services at Massachusetts General Hospital, where Duffy is manager of food production.
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“He just doesn't accept substandard stuff,” Barraclough adds. Duffy chalks it up to simply taking pride in his work, which includes supervising in the hot food kitchen, checking food quality, recipe development and quality assurance — all on a very large scale.
“I'd hate to have someone look at something I did and say, ‘He doesn't care,'” Duffy says. “In this business, there's always some challenge: you're short handed, or it's just a bad day, but you have to be proud of your end product.”
When the stress had taken its toll, you might find Duffy in his backyard in a quiet neighborhood near Tufts University in Summerville, MA, sanding down an old piece of furniture he plans to restore, or cultivating his hot pepper garden in warmer months. But mostly, Duffy is more than happy to be at work in the healthcare setting, an opportunity he says culinary students shouldn't be so quick to overlook.
What advice would you give someone just starting out?
Duffy: “If you're thinking about going to culinary school, go to work in a restaurant first. Second, if you're looking into culinary arts, don't just limit yourself to being a chef in a restaurant. There are lots of different paths you can follow. Don't be narrow minded about where you can go.”
How did you first get interested in food?
Duffy: “The first time I worked in foodservice was at an assisted living facility in New Hampshire, mostly serving. Plus, I grew up around rising bread. My mom baked for a bakery. My dad always liked to cook. I used to watch Julia Child in black and white on Channel 2 when I was a kid.”
What were your favorite classes in culinary school?
Duffy: “I liked food science the most. How does it work? Why does it happen? What causes an emulsion? How does a roux work on a scientific level? It's always fascinating to learn the classic way — the proper way — to get something done. I always wondered: Am I just using a bad habit to accomplish something?”
How would you describe your leadership tyle?
Duffy: “I've definitely become more hands-on. I feel like I need to be in the kitchen, in the mix, to know what's going on out there. The only way to judge the staff's progress is to be out there with them. I think a good manager learns something new every day.”
How do you view the importance of nutrition for food in a healthcare setting?
Duffy: “Now I have a whole new outlook. In the restaurants I worked at, the nutritional side was never as much of a focus for me. I'd be more interested in making the food look good, taste good, and then think about reducing sodium or adding more protein. This is totally different. I had never been in such a health-conscious environment before. We're working on patient menus now, and we're trying to make as many items as possible fit into the low-sodium guidelines while still retaining great flavor integrity.”
Where do you get your inspiration for recipes and menus?
Duffy: “The best recipes out there come from older people I know — home cooks who are doing their thing. A woman from El Salvador I used to work with used to make these amazing pupusas. That's a corn tortilla with pork and cheese, with some coleslaw. For people in other cultures, it's super basic. That's where you've got to start: the core of the real good stuff.”
Do you do any gardening in the summer?
Duffy: “I didn't get to it last summer, but the summer before, I had more than 100 hot pepper plants, of about six or seven varieties. I started them from seed and I didn't realize how many would grow! I had a raised garden bed in the backyard, and three flower boxes off the back porch, plus an area of about 4×20 feet. After harvesting, I dried them and used them to make chili and stir fry.”