The chef who gave up gastronomy to cook for cancer patients

Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland

Courtney Kennedy remembers the relief she felt when she lost her job. She worked in the kitchen at Flora Bar, the upscale and highly regarded restaurant located inside an iconic Brutalist museum on the Upper East Side. Highlights of the restaurant’s dinner menu included flat omelets topped with multiple caviar dumplings and plump meatballs filled with lobster meat, floating in a yuzu-flavored broth. Kennedy had only worked there for a few months, but she was already frustrated with her role as a cook – which involved scaling a lot of oysters – and dreaded the conversation she would have to have when she stepped down. “I hate to put my opinion. I was thinking, It’s gonna be so awkward and so strange, she recalls. It was March 2020, just as the pandemic was hitting New York City. “Then they were like, Oh everyone’s fired. I was like, Great!

She tells me this story while sipping a glass of cold brew coffee, sitting in the mocha-hued outdoor dining area at Nolita’s Thai Diner. A recent heat wave has just broken, and it’s the kind of windy day that makes you want to drop everything and head to the park, or at least have brunch on Kenmare Street. We order shrimp paste crusted ribs and a green papaya salad with more dried shrimp, and I push for a chicken and banana blossom salad. “I like big chunks of grass,” says Kennedy.

Even though Kennedy has spent most of the past decade working in some of New York’s most acclaimed professional kitchens, this meal is one of the only times she’s been to a restaurant since leaving the Flora. Bar. That’s because instead of looking for another restaurant job – at the height of the pandemic in the city, at a time when many New Yorkers had fled the city or were being quarantined inside their apartments – Kennedy started cooking for patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on York Avenue.

“It still serves food for people,” Kennedy says. “It’s just a lot more gloves than I’ve ever worn.” Before COVID, the Culinary Institute of America graduate spent six years working in New York restaurants. His first job was at Torrisi Italian Specialties, the small but luxurious Italian-American dining room named after Rich Torrisi, one of the partner chefs of the Major Food Group, which had only 20 seats and served balls to order. . of fresh mozzarella to start its full-service tasting menus. When that restaurant closed eight months after Kennedy’s debut, she went to Dirty French, the glitzy MFG hotel restaurant on Ludlow Street, followed by a walk past the Lobster Club, a sister restaurant to the Four space. Seasons renovated the business. Between this restaurant and the Flora Bar, Kennedy also spent an “intense” year at Momofuku Ssäm Bar in the East Village. “While working at the Ssäm Bar, I used to work my butt until 2 am, and I’m like, for what? ” she says. “I think I did a good job,” she continues, before saying that she reconsidered the sense of pride she felt for her work. “As, Look at me, I’m the meat cook – did anyone know?

At the hospital, she works as a cook in a kitchen with around 50 people at one time, 30 of whom are involved in food preparation. They are responsible for providing room service, three times a day, to the hospital’s 498 patients, who can choose from one of the 60 dishes on the menu in addition to daily specials.. In the kitchen, there are employees whose only job is to work the line of trays, making sure that the food corresponds to the right ticket. Cooks, on the other hand, are assigned to different stations – much like a line of restaurants – like eggs, grills, and sauces. “The first shift I worked was 6:30 am to 2:30 pm, and I was just like, Oh wow, I’ve never seen so many eggs in my lifeKennedy laughs.

There are plenty of other differences. For starters, she now earns $ 25 an hour, compared to the $ 15-17 she earned towards the end of her time in restaurants. She has health insurance (something many in the hospitality industry cannot afford) and has been feeling less anxious since starting her new job. She also adapts to the idea of ​​a fixed schedule – she usually works from 12:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. – and paid time off. “People take a lot of vacations,” she says. “I don’t know because I literally don’t know how.”

At first, Kennedy was also surprised to discover that he wasn’t constantly asked to stay late or come in early. “I was like, Are they going to come in and say, “Can you stay until 3 o’clock?”“She says.” Every now and then we’ll have to stay later, but they’ll pay us, and it’s not like they’re sneaking it up on us or something. “For Kennedy, that’s a big change. . “In restaurants, they would say you should come in at 1 pm, but if you come in at 1 pm, you’ll be so late.” Instead, cooks come on duty as soon as they get to the hospital, and anyone who works 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. helps prepare other cooks.

All of this stability is one of the reasons staff tend to stay in the hospital – something Kennedy achieved when she started meeting her new colleagues. “I’m like, Wow you’ve been working here for 14 years, “she says.” I’ve never met someone who has worked somewhere for 14 years. If it’s a restaurant, it’s like, Oh, you worked here for a year, it’s a long time.

A typical hospital meal.
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland

The new job also required more abstract adjustments, and Kennedy had to change her thinking in terms of who she was cooking for and why. “When you work in a restaurant, it’s always you “- the cooker“versus them” – customers, says Kennedy. The mindset is, “They’re here to get you. What Kennedy came to realize was that this is not the case at all restaurants, but that was absolutely the case in the restaurants where she worked, where the names of the chefs and distinct styles ostensibly attracted customers. (Momofuku became famous early in the business for the strict no-substitution menu policies of its restaurants.) “We were very our way or the highway ”, Kennedy said. “The chef is right, that’s all.”

Now, Kennedy’s day-to-day concerns go far beyond clean char on a steak, for example, like developing a low microbial diet suitable for bone marrow transplant recipients, or making whatever. thing for esophageal cancer patients who cannot swallow. “Getting people to eat is the hardest part,” says Kennedy. (Loss of appetite is also a problem, and a malnourished patient can’t fight cancer either.) Fat in there – or if they just want some food, it’s hard. “

This does not mean that comfort or pleasure is not taken into account in food. The kitchen is always looking for ways to add bursts of fun to patients’ days, and they indulge in the occasional flourishing of veneer, like shingles of strawberries topping a cup of cottage cheese. Kennedy says this has become particularly crucial as COVID limited visit guidelines, which means those same patients cannot depend on the company as much. Kennedy knows the potential of food to make someone feel less alone, which was impressed by his father’s own enthusiasm for food after undergoing quadruple bypass surgery. Even now, he sends her pictures of the food he ate during his stay. “That was two years ago, and we’re still talking about it,” she says. “It really changed his day because he got something and thought it was amazing.”

Food assembly is simpler in the hospital, but allows for creative flourishes.
Photo: DeSean McClinton-Holland

Mostly, she just wants to make patients happy, which is different from impressing hard-to-please customers in Manhattan’s sparse dining rooms. “We have a million things in the hospital,” Kennedy says. “If someone asks for something, you want to have it, say to them, ‘We will get it, of course, that’s not a problem’. . “We don’t do it for finesse,” she says, before explaining that it’s a different take on VIP treatment than what you’ll find even at New York’s most exclusive restaurants. “It’s neat,” says Kennedy, “but it’s a different kind of care – it’s a neat hospital. “

When dessert arrives at Thai Diner, Kennedy pulls out her phone to take photos for Instagram. She loves the decorative sesame tile in a banana-rum pudding and the flowery “grandmother” dessert plates. “I started an Instagram that’s just the ice cream I get,” she says. “We’re ice cream snobs, I guess you could say. “

I ask her if she ever misses working in restaurants. “No,” she said, before using her spoon to break the tile a bit.

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