Chef Sam Malek has turned from a career as an independent restaurateur in the Big Apple to become an award-winning executive chef at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital.
The list of commercial restaurant chefs who have migrated over to onsite foodservice is growing ever longer as the word gets out about the opportunities and advantages of cooking for institutions and other host organizations.
Still, success is not automatic, and some commercial chefs find limitations imposed by dietary restrictions (healthcare), legal mandates (K-12), concentrated customer demographics (colleges) and food budgets (practically all segments) too stifling.
Not Sam Malek, though. Malek has done the commercial world in one of its most Darwinian environments — he operated his own independent restaurant in the New York City market — and migrated over to healthcare foodservice for the usual reasons (hours, benefits, etc.) six years ago.
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Today, he is not only executive chef at one of the segment's showcase operations — Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ — but the Gold Medal winner (with his director, Tony Almeida) of the prestigious 2008 HFM (National Society for Healthcare Foodservice Management) Culinary Competition (for the winning recipe, see p. 42).
At RWJ, Malek oversees the production of up to 1,500 patient meals a day, plus up to 3,000 retail meals for visitors and staff. He supervises a staff of around 25 FTEs, including 10 full-time and nine part-time cooks.
“It's no longer hospital food. With my over 25 years in the hotel/restaurant world, I like that we are cooking like a restaurant, serving food like you get in a restaurant, plus the hours are very good. I sometimes get my weekends off and the benefits are excellent, so it's a very good place to work. The stability is there, the job security, versus when you work for a club, hotel or restaurant, the turnover is very high. There aren't those 70-80 hour weeks and you usually get your weekends and holidays off. I have a young family now and I value that.”
“It's endless. Try making a dish for 2,000 people and make sure that your number one customer's food tastes the same as the food for number 2,000.”
"I grew up on Long Island. My family was in the food business, my grandparents had a restaurant in Queens. I started working there as a dishwasher when I was 12. As I got older, I started doing prep and then cooking, watching the chef to see what he was doing. I've never had a job outside the food business. This just seemed to be the niche that I always did very well in and so I continued with it."
"Italian, an old fashioned Italian place with home-cooked meals. We made our own fresh meatballs, we made our own breaded chicken, did our own fresh fish. Everything was hand-made so there was a lot of prep involved. later, in high school, I worked in some fast food places and then while in college I started working in New York City."
"I opened the first one in 1993 and ran it for four years. We specialized in Northern Italian cuisine. I also had a place in Chester, NJ, with a friend of mine where I was head chef. It was a 52-seat restaurant. Later I had another 52-seat place in Hoboken, which I ran until 2002. that's when I started working at Robert Wood Johnson."
"I was thinking about slowing down a little. I was working seven days a week, 25-hours a day so to speak. I think it was my wife who had sent the resume in."
"No, that started in October 2003, so I was overseeing the old trayline for about a year, year and a half before we converted."
“They give you the ingredient — this year a 6-oz. Tyson boneless pork chop — and you have to follow the rules of the competition. Because the competition was going to be in Virginia, I thought we should do something Southern, and the first things I thought of were collard greens, sweet potatoes and a smothered pork chop. We practiced with a kitchen set up exactly as it would be in the competition.”
“In the beginning, but after the clock starts, you start working and second nature takes over. I didn't think I'd actually win, so that was a wonderful surprise…”
“Because the competition was so incredible. I thought because the other four contestants were so good, I might make third place. But what's really great about winning is that I get to be a judge at next year's event, and I can't wait to see the level of competition.”
Create Sam Malek's award-winning recipe, Smothered Southern Pork Chop with Sage, Apple and Pecan Sauce.