As the new – and first – executive chef at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Serge Kostenko is on a mission to change the perception of hospital food. I sat down with him to see what drives his passion for all things culinary.
How did you get into this profession? Were your parents big foodies?
Food has always played a big role in my life. Everything was happening around the kitchen, and I remember doing my homework while my mom was cooking dinner.
My dad is a chef as well. From a young age, I knew how hard the job was: long hours and working on the weekends and holidays. When we were at home, my dad was always away working. I thought to myself, this profession is not for me.
What brought you to Canada?
I grew up in different countries. I was born in Eastern Europe and raised in Israel. After serving in the army, I decided to travel and that’s how I ended up in Canada. With limited English and no Canadian work experience, I found the kitchen was always a place where I felt comfortable.
My dad was the one who always told me how great Canada is, so after my service I decided to travel and see for myself. I came as a tourist and quickly realized that I wanted to live here. I started working in the restaurant business, first as a dishwasher, then a busboy, a server, a line cook. Then I realized that without a degree I couldn’t get any further in my career.
I went to a culinary College here in Toronto to become a chef. I kept working through the ranks in the restaurant scene and I loved it. It’s a great atmosphere, and I felt like that is where I belong.
When I got married and we had our first child, it became more complicated. I was never home, and was working long hours and weekends. That’s when I realized that it was time for a change. I left the restaurant scene and worked in some high-end retirement homes as a chef for a while. After that, I did corporate work for several grocery stores, and now I’m at Sunnybrook. I’m really excited to be here and be a part of this big project.
Tell me more about this big project!
We are developing new menu items, cooking fresh foods onsite, and will for the first time will be offering in-patients menu choices for dinner! That will hopefully change the way people see hospital food and be a starting point in a bigger shift of bringing healthier and fresher food to our patients.
More about menu changes at Sunnybrook below:
What does your typical day look like?
In the morning, I come in and do my routes. I start in the production kitchen where at the daily huddle, we go over the day’s production sheets to make sure everything is in order and I can manage any issues. Then I move up to the retail side, where I have a morning meeting with the unit manager and staff. I’m a very positive person and really try to motivate others.
Every department has their managers and supervisors, so my job is focused on the culinary aspect; the final product, taste and execution.
Then I’ll tend to my e-mails and other meetings. Before I know it, it’s the end of the day.
It must be a challenge trying to cater to so many different tastes and needs…
It is not like working in a restaurant, where you can adjust flavours and ingredients as you go. Here, you have to keep nutritional restrictions in mind. Any changes have to be approved by the dietitians and our test kitchen.
Our new menu items were developed in our test kitchen, and my team is heavily involved in the research and development of these items.
When you are sick, food is not always a priority. Our patients want to get better and go home. Our job is to help them get better by using food as the fuel. If a patient sees something that looks good, smells good and tastes good, they might eat some, so we can help a little bit in the recovery process.
And they can choose with the new dinner menu options?
We have a few options available for every meal, but what’s available for each patient depends on their dietary restrictions and the procedure they are here for. If they are on a regular diet, they will have two options to choose from. Soon, we will also have our restaurant style menu, so patients will have even more options this fall. Not everyone wants to have a roast beef dinner after a big surgery! Maybe they crave comfort food, like a grilled cheese and a cup of soup.
What do the patients think so far?
We’ve received a lot positive feedback. It feels good to make someone’s meal a little better. It’s only the beginning, and the only way to go is up! I have no doubt we will succeed in providing the best quality meals to our patients and veterans.
Hospital food hasn’t always had the best reputation…
My mission is to change assumptions about hospital food by helping people understand what it takes for each meal to get to each patient. There is a huge operation behind the scenes at Sunnybrook, and it really is a massive team effort. There are hundreds of people who contribute to our success. I thank them for that, and am lucky and proud to be a part of this team.
As I mentioned, this is not a restaurant, and every patient is here for a reason. Many of our patients have restrictions based on their condition, and we must oblige with what they need medically. But hospital food can be good food. Not fancy, not glamorous, but a good hearty meal, made in house, from fresh ingredients by real cooks.
So how does the team go about feeding thousands of patients every week?
I don’t think people realize what goes into the process. Our cooking system is called Cook and Chill, and is the same system used by all major airlines. We work one day ahead as our plates need to be assembled hours before being served to patients.
To achieve the best results, we are using the best cooking and chilling equipment available on the market today. Each meal has to travel from the kitchen to the patient’s bed looking good, smelling good and tasting good. When it’s all done, we go back and do it again!
Are you sick of looking at food by the time you get home?
No, food is my passion. As much as food is a necessity, it is one of the pleasures of life, at least for me.
Do you ever have to pack a lunch?
I have the pleasure of tasting food for a living. I actually have to prioritize what to try, though, as I can’t physically try it all.
What is your favourite food?
I grew up in different parts of the world, so my love for food is international. I love simple, yet flavorful food.
Are there any foods you wouldn’t try?
Not yet! Food is cool. I tell my kids, “you don’t have to eat it, but you have to try it.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity