Hospital food, heal thyself: Matthew Shipman's mission

By Mike Sutter | Fed Man Walking | 02.28.12
Picture this, only with a prettier version of me: I’m sitting up in bed last November watching “Top Chef,” the one with the Austin guys. I’ve butted in on a live chat at on my laptop, and I’m working through a plate of roasted pork tenderloin stuffed with crab over tomato-basil pasta and broiled tomatoes crowned with tarragon-scented bearnaise.
I am in the hospital.
Somehow, knee surgery has turned into another day on the food-writer’s beat. I might be working on a morphine drip and a nerve blocker, but this is one of the best dinners I’ve eaten in 2011. The attending nurse — who plays in the Austin progressive country band Guns of Navarone — must think I’m high. But I had been wheeled into this room a few hours before full of apprehension about what lay ahead for my new bionic joint, and now I feel right at home. Or at work. Either way, I’m relieved, and my gimpy walk down the recovery road starts that night.
I tell that story so I can tell the story behind the food service at the Hospital at Westlake Medical Center, the one with the flamingos. And to answer the question: With a captive in-patient audience, why should a hospital put anything extra into the infamous regimen of mashed potatoes, peas and meatloaf? The answer comes in two parts.
The first and most obvious answer is that hospitals are in competition with each other for patients and doctors. With machines and rooms and instruments a given, the hospital with the best extras wins. It’s marketing. The second answer comes from an unlikely source: a hospital chef driven by a spiritual mandate to help people get better. Matthew Shipman is on a mission from God. Or at the very least a mission to spare other patients from the kind of benign neglect he saw his grandfather endure at the nursing home where Shipman once worked. His customary Twitter signoff signals his intent: #ItAintHospitalFood.
The hospital’s Waterfall Cafe has enough faith in its food that it’s open to the public from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday with salads, breakfast tacos and Austin Java coffee. The daily specials that triggered my food-writer’s instincts fire up around 11 a.m., and they go fast. I showed up at 3 p.m. last Wednesday and missed ruby trout on watercress with pears, coconut, peas and peanuts. The sweet spot for ordering daily specials is the heart of the lunch hour, from about 11:30 to 1 p.m.
In the cafe, the presentation isn’t quite the room-service-on-china that patients get. It’s all done in carryout boxes. But with something like chipotle-cherry pork and acorn squash at $9.75 or a Lighter Side dish of steelhead with quinoa and tomato vinaigrette at $8.66, the plate and silverware are beside the point. More examples from Shipman’s specials board: steamed mussels with homemade focaccia; black drum with Greek pasta salad; sherry-roasted flank steak with smoked salt and couscous. For me, another hospital food turning point was flatiron steak with candied orange glaze, baby portobellos and rosemary potatoes.
Shipman came to the Hospital at Westlake almost two years ago by way of a 22-year kitchen career that started when Shipman, now 41, was a 19-year-old in Dallas working his way through college in the kitchen at the Fairmont hotel’s Pyramid Restaurant. “I fell in love with it,” Shipman said. That love led him to be part of the opening team for Stephan Pyle’s Star Canyon before he moved to California, where he worked at Fog City Diner and Bix in San Francisco and Michael Chiarello’s Tra Vigne in St. Helena.
When he moved to Austin in 1999, Shipman worked at Reed Clemons’ Bitter End restaurant and brewery, then moved to the Hill Country to handle the kitchen at Wimberley’s Blair House Inn. From there, he went back to school to study nutrition and took a job at a nursing home where his grandfather lived. The food disgusted him. “That’s where my path started to change,” he said. “I saw how I could be used better.” He worked to improve the home’s kitchen, then worked for a time in Austin at the Hilton Garden Inn’s restaurant Eighteenth Over Austin before coming to the hospital.
Having grown weary of the servant role of a restaurant chef, “I wanted to do something for people who really appreciated it,” he said. The hospital allows him to answer a calling to help people heal. “When people are wheeled in here, their tastebuds are messed up, they don’t feel hungry. If you put something exciting in front of them, they’re going to eat. And they’re going to get better nutrition.”
Under his leadership, the hospital won a national Whole Grains Challenge with a monthlong menu that included quinoa, farro, Egyptian barley and other grains. Healing isn’t just about eating what’s good for you. Shipman is joined on the small kitchen’s hotline by his second-in-command Anna Gonzalez and Tomasita Peña, who’s in charge of desserts that range from Butterfinger cheesecake to homemade pumpkin whoopie pies to red velvet tres leches cake that brings together the South with south of the border.
In that kitchen, Shipman and his staff make their own stocks, reduce demi glaces, break down whole fish and even cure their own bacon. He works with almost a free hand from the hospital, a show of faith that reinforces their marketing mandate by backing up his mission to serve better food. For Shipman, a husband with two kids and another on the way, it’s about more than better food. “I’ve been given a lot of second chances that I shouldn’t have gotten. This is my way of giving back.”
Robyn Hoffman is the hospital’s director of therapies. She’s also Shipman’s boss as the head of food services. For her, food is part of therapy, but it’s also a marketing vehicle. “We want to attract people from outside of the hospital. By having meatloaf and mashed potatoes all the time, we’re not going to get that,” she said. “You know the usual question about a hospital: How was the food? If I talk to you and you say you had great food, it might affect which hospital you end up going to.”
Waterfall Cafe
5656 Bee Caves Road in Building L at the Hospital at Westlake Medical Center. 697-3635.
Public hours: 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday.
(Photos by Mike Sutter © Fed Man Walking)