Chef Stephen Bello, executive chef at South Nassau Communities Hospital on Long Island, NY, is certainly a talented culinarian. He has received a slew of honors, from the 2007 Chef Professionalism Award and the National Presidential Medallion, both from the American Culinary Federation (ACF), to the Gold Medal at the Les Amis d'Escoffier Society 2007 Culinary Exhibition in Cologne, Germany. He is also an inductee of both the Chef de Cuisine Society of New York and the ACF.
And he's a poet (see below).
Bello was hired as the first executive chef in South Nassau's history almost 20 years ago. Today, he oversees the 105-person Sodexo operation at the 441-bed hospital that provides patient dining, retail foodservice and onsite catering.
The patient dining operation is a hybrid room service model developed by Bello that has a restaurant-style menu with over 25 selections. Associates take orders three times a day, and patients can also call down their requests, which are all prepared to order.
The employee cafeteria serves some 1,200 meals a day while a separate visitor's cafe specializes in grilled and grab-and-go selections. It has seen a 65 percent increase in revenues since Bello took it over a year and a half ago.
The large central kitchen has separate sections for patient dining and catering/retail outlets. It also provides some 600 Meals on Wheels meals each day as well as meals for Nassau's offsite properties (clinics, offices, conference center, etc.).
How did you get interested in food?
I grew up in the delicatessen business, so at an early age when most kids were getting up to go to school, I was getting up to go to work with my dad in Holbrook, NY. I always had a passion for food, loved to be around it. My father said, if you're going to follow your dream, you have to get an education. He sent me to the CIA.
What did you do when you graduated?
In 1982, I opened my own restaurant, Stephen's Cobbler House in Babylon Village, NY, a 50-seat storefront bistro. It received three and a half stars from Newsday. I sold it after five years and went to work at the Garden City Hotel as the chef de cuisine of their four-star restaurant, Georgio's.
How did you wind up at South Nassau?
After four years at Georgio's, I was looking for something that would put more balance in my life because I had two new kids. One day I saw an ad in the paper that said South Nassau needed a chef, so I interviewed and here I am 20 years later. It was the best thing I ever did.
What was your impression of hospital foodservice at the time?
Just that most people who went to the hospital said the food is horrible.
Was it horrible?
Yeah, but my job was to change that. Little by little we made positive changes. We started to build and develop a team. When I got here, they used to call my team “dietary” and the cooks wore what looked like showercaps. There was no identity. One thing I wanted was to create an identity that they could feel proud of being part of. Now, they are in full garb, our logo is on their jackets, and they wear chef hats. We have a full-time saucier on staff and make our own soups and stocks. We also have a baker, a garde manger chef and two sous chefs. I now have the tools to be successful.
What were your first big changes when you came in?
Going back to basics. Soups, sauces and gravies are the foundations of good cooking. Our “Grandma's Chicken Soup,” which is on the menu every day, is a favorite. You can tell it's authentic and made from scratch just from its aroma. We have a rather elderly population, so comfort foods are very popular.
Do you miss the commercial world?
I still get a pang when I walk into a restaurant and remember that there you could touch every plate. But everything is a tradeoff. Now, come Friday afternoon, I'm off and won't be back until Monday. The extra time not only lets me enjoy my family but gives me the opportunity to be involved in all sort of other things: advisory boards in schools, giving back to the youth of our profession, being president of the Long Island ACF, and being active with “green” initiatives.
What is your proudest achievement?
In 2006, our department won the Culinary Award of Excellence from the ACF. It's an award that usually goes to restaurants, hotels and country clubs — but that year it was won by a healthcare facility, our healthcare facility. I rented a limousine and took my staff to the awards dinner where I received the award in front of 300 of my peers. And that was monumental.
The Heart of a Chef
At such an early age we knew our calling, A profession so demanding that some would soon be falling.
From washing dishes to great wishes, Never could we of imagined all those great dishes.
A spark created by our mentors, We would soon become great inventors.
It was inevitable that the journey be incredible, It was the food that must be edible.
Many of us sacrificed our personal lives, for the love of food, And at times, it would affect our mood.
Only we could truly understand, That it took a talent with great command.
The clanging and banging, the chopping and the slicing, The sounds of the kitchen, and the speed of Chef dicing.
A jacket so white with pins and patches, As we cooked at the stove in small batches.
Only we understand the pride of the uniform, It was our way to create the norm, with such great form.
As we look back we have no regret, That this incredible journey was a sure bet.
It is the Soul of the chef that runs through our veins, And that is why we hold the reins.
There truly is no greater pleasure, Than satisfying people with our treasures.
-Stephen Bello, Jan. 14, 2006