Our Secret Weapon

A Staff Administrative Assistant? If you are wondering what that exactly means, It’s pretty much code language for “Does anything that’s needed by the department!’

It’s not a glamorous job by any means, as it involves basically doing certain tasks that others don’t want to do. Its having the difficult phone conversations, and answering the odd emails. Its running out to the store to get a last minute chef request like pickled diakon root,  covering for somebody who has missed a deadline, or going to the bakery in rush hour to pick up a custom cake for an event. All of this, coupled with endless trips to the copy center, followed by countless elevator rides to diffuse certain situations throughout. But if you have the right person sitting in this seat, it creates a whole new dynamic for your team.

Enter Tara Freeman to the story.

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Here, we have somebody in a role that I believe to be a cut above the rest. An outlier to the culinary team, who in her own behind the scenes kind of way, has a huge part of the success of our team.

A few examples why…A new bakery opens up in downtown Raleigh, don’t worry, she’s bringing the chefs samples of their signature treats. A small taqueria opens up that’s causing a local buzz, she’s right there with a copy of the menu. A trendy chef is planning a new eatery that the locals are craving, Tara’s spreading the news. All of this helps keep us inspired, fresh and up to date.

 Additionally, she’s organizing food truck rodeo’s, weight loss competitions, and United Way fundraising events throughought the organization. This is all on top of her normal day to day responsibilities, which can become quite cumbersome at times. Here is a few pictures of what I believe is the first ever  Food Truck Rodeo at a hospital, put together by Tara a few months back.



    To many members of our team, I usually encourage them  to leave their outside world at the back door when coming to work. We need you to focus on the job. But with some, (like Tara) her  outside world input is expected and needed. It’s infectious, and makes us better chefs. Tara reminds us how important it is to keep our fingers on the pulse of the food industry around us.

    Also, with her food knowledge and passion for good eats, her feedback is very meaningful to our chef team. If we cook something new, chances are, Tara is one of the first few people to sample it. With a true passion for well prepared food, as well as industry related trends, her feedback is welcomed, and has helped shape some of our new recipes into fruition. If something’s not right, she is also going to let you know. As a chef, that has been a huge part of my success,  recognizing, and acting on things that need improvement. I appreciete Tara’s ability to tell it like it is, when others may just tell you what you want to hear.

Chefs can sometimes let their egos take control, and eventually steer away from anybody that provides negative feedback. ith Tara, its welcomed. Her feedback  and critique has been a huge part of the success of our program, especially with some of our newer successful recipes.

 Having Tara on board, it’s exciting to hear what she will bring next to share with the team. With her ear to the ground with the local Raleigh dining scene, she continually brings fresh ideas to the table. Working with a gang of chefs, she is exactly what is needed to keep us fresh and constantly driving forward.  She’s a huge part of our recipe for success. And that’s what’s up.

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The Four Sides to “Stevie Ray”


“For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.” -Rudyard Kipling




Steven Longe, a.ka. “John Steven” or “Stevie Ray” in our kitchen is a behind the scenes player that is making it happen every day. As the Executive Chef, I can honestly say that this man is truly one of the unsung heroes on our culinary team. A truly unique and hardworking individual, who brings much more to the table than just his position of Lead Cook every day, he brings his heart. Let me embellish on that a bit.

A native of  Plattsburgh, New York, which is just about as close as you can get to the Canadian Border, Steve comes from a true restaurant background. Actually he started out at sixteen years old as a dishwasher in his fathers  Italian restaurant-The Orange Julep. Eventually he moved on, and ventured across Lake Champlain, where he laid down roots in the city of Burlington, Vermont. It was here, that Steve started to really sharpen his kitchen skills, as he spent ten years at the famous Sweetwaters American Bistro, which is one of the most famed dining establishments in all of Burlington. After a decade in the kitchen, Steve was able to change courses, as he opened his own record store, and was able to be completely surrounded by something he is extremely passionate about, music. After seven years at his store, an amazing opportunity came about, and he was able to tie both worlds together, as he accepted a position on the catering team with St. Pierre’s Catering in Vermont. It was with this catering company that he traveled up and down the east coast, catering for famous musicians on a nightly basis.  Steve was onstage, backstage, and on the  tour buses of many stars, cooking daily meals for musicians such as B.B. King, Black Sabbath, Jackson Browne, Ringo Star, Lynyrd Skynyrd,  Donny Osmond, and Phish (Just to name a few!)

Eventually, Steve’s catering experience led him to Raleigh. While in Raleigh, he continued to use his private catering expertise where and spent about three years on the team at Mitchell’s Catering, before becoming fascinated at what we were doing with hospital food at Rex.

While with us for the past 4 1/2 years, he has not only been cooking, but he frequently has the opportunity to showcase his passion for baking. I always love to say that he has personally made some of the best scones I have ever tasted (and I lived in Ireland!) I wouldn’t say that he’s obsessed with baking and breads, but he’s pretty close. If we need somebody to bake fresh muffins, sourdough bread, or pizza dough, he is our guy. As a matter in fact, just about everyday you can see him make our pizza dough from scratch, and forming it out into plush little pillows.  When Steve is doing it, it looks like art.


Steve is also involved in any conversation that involves music in our kitchen as well, especially the classics. Chances are that if you mention a musician,  Steve has seen them play live…multiple times. But whatever show he see’s, one thing is for sure, you can count on him to be at work the next morning at 5:00am, and ready to do it all over again. On weekends, Steve breaks out his boombox, as he loves to listen to music while working in the kitchen.

In addition to music, Steve is our Black Hat Chef garden ambassador. It is because of him, our garden has gotten bigger and better every year. John will even come in on his personal time to make sure that his culinary garden is looking good. Just this past year, he organized a program with other co-workers outside of the kitchen who wanted to be involved with managing the daily needs of the garden. While most chefs bring knives to work, Steve is frequently seen coming in and our kitchen with a rake, work gloves, plants, mulch, and various other garden tools.

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In addition to all  that I’ve already mentioned, Steve is extremely passionate about keeping things clean, neat & organized. I can confidently say that I’ve never worked in a kitchen before with somebody that is so proud to keep the kitchen, and work areas safe and clean. I commend him, and thank him for this. When he is on vacation, his presence is extremely missed. And that’s the truth.


-Ryan Conklin


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It’s Time to Battle- Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series

Wow, what an honor it is being included in this year’s- Got to Be NC Competition Dining event. It’s great that my team can be recognized on this grand stage, as we will be competing against other top chefs from the Triangle and beyond, stretching as far away as coastal North Carolina. This is rare for chefs in healthcare to get chosen to compete against restaurants, but it’s also a testimony to the very special culinary program that we have here at Rex. Many people have been asking, ”What are you going to cook?”  Well, because we will be using featured ingredients from North Carolina that are only revealed to us one hour before cooking, it’s kind of hard to plan a menu. But whatever it is, my team will be concentrating on what we do best,  which is serving flavorful dishes that continue to raise the bar of “Hospital Food” as the world currently knows it. We are not competing for just ourselves, but we are representing the many healthcare organizations across the country who have a deep commitment to serving restaurant quality food to their patients, co-workers, and guests.

As for now, my team is getting prepared mentally to battle our opponents from Top of The Hill Restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC on Tuesday January 20th.

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I’m proud of my teammates that I’ve chosen, as both Chefs Steve Pexton, and Collin Jennings have earned the right to cook on the Rex team, and prove to everyone that we are extremely passionate about how we do things. I will be relying strongly on both of  their talent and expertise during the competition. For more information about the series, watch the video below, and please visit www.competitiondining.com for tickets.


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The Pizza Challenge, Accepted

“Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.”  – Bernice Johnson Reagan

Taking on a good challenge is something I’ve always respected. In the modern hospital kitchen, specifically ours, every day can bring a new opportunity for a challenge. But there are different degrees of difficulty when it comes to improving the food in your facility. Additionally, often challenges are accepted because the person being challenged knows that it will be easy, so they accept & conquer. Take for example the recent ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, is it really a challenge, or is more of an opportunity to raise money and heighten awareness? Dumping ice water on my head in the middle of summer isn’t exactly a challenge to me. But some challenges are just that, a true challenge. Something that you know may be a difficult task, but if you put forth the effort and work, you will have a chance to come out on top.

In the hospital kitchen, I get a tremendous amount joy out of seeing somebody from our culinary team rise to a challenge. It happens often, but this is one of the more memorable examples.

So let’s talk pizza. It all started a few months back,  as we were expecting some increased retail volume due to a hospital wide computer transformation project, we had to make changes to our daily culinary routine. We decided as a team, that due to higher anticipated volumes, we needed to speed up our service at every level. One of the focuses was on our pizza station. We made the difficult decision to outsource our pizza during the one month time period. This would enable us to keep up with the volume of additional customers. So we hit the streets of Raleigh, and found a place with arguably the best pizza in town. Randy’s Pizza has seven locations in North Carolina. Their pizza is great, and was recently awarded  Best Pizza in Raleigh 2014! For our customers, it was such a treat to have Randy’s NY Style Pizza delivered here fresh out of the oven; multiple times daily.

Weeks later when the rush was over, our Director didn’t  want to go back to our pizza that was being served prior. Was it quality? Yes. Where we proud of it? No. When looking at reinventing it, we wanted our pizza to be comparable to Randy’s. It would be challenging to pull off. More daily effort, training, and production would be needed. In other words, it would be a considerable amount of more work! Enter Steve Pexton.

 Our very own Chef Steve Pexton accepted this challenge and decided to take it to a whole new level. Steve saw a challenge, and was ready to conquer.


After about a week of recipe development, Steve had redirected our ship. His  mission started with making our own dough daily, from scratch.  Every day in the mid afternoon, our Hobart mixture is jingling in back prep room, and our very own homemade pizza dough is being tossed around gently by the dough hook. It is after resting the dough, Steve and his team carefully measure, and form the dough into balls and proof them overnight in a dough box- just like a pizza shop in New York.

The next day that dough is hand stretched  and topped with our sauce. This pizza sauce is robust, consisting of nothing more than the highest quality San Marzano Tomatoes, basil and kosher salt. I once again thank my longtime friend Jason O’Toole, chef owner of Pizza Barbone, in Hyannis, Massachusetts for sharing with us his expertise on the sauce.

Just like at your local pizza joint, our pies are now baked just as we need them, and rival the quality and taste of any pizza place in town. More importantly though, Chef Steve has risen to, and conquered the pizza challenge. He has not only developed our new program, but has trained other members of the team so we have a consistent product, a new pizza program that we are all very proud of! His team is following out his vision to have an authentic pizza built from scratch right from the hospital kitchen.

To our new friends at Randy’s, well thanks to Chef Steve, you now have some friendly competition right up the street. That’s whats up!

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Americas Top Healthcare Chefs Share Thoughts On Comfort Food

Comfort Food. It’s a food phrase used often these days, and working in healthcare, it’s a necessity when it comes to feeding patients who are sick. One thing I’ve learned for sure over the last few years is that you can never forget who your guests are. And our guests are always craving comfort food. Meatloaf, Mac & Cheese, Mashed Potatoes, Baked Chicken, Grits, and Baked Apples are all things we serve daily at Rex, giving some a a ‘taste of home’ while they are here in the hospital. But what does comfort food mean to you? What memories does a particular dish bring back, what kind of food reminds you of your family? What food reminds you of home?

For me, the answer is simple. I’m a breakfast connoisseur. No food is as comforting to me as a couple of over easy cooked eggs, fresh biscuits, and creamy sausage gravy.When I travel back home to New York, the biscuits and gravy aren’t available, so that’s when it switches to an everything bagel with vegetable cream cheese.  A freshly baked New York bagel of course!

 Over Easy Eggs…. this started when I was young. I think it’s because on the weekends my whole family ate breakfast together and my father used to cook me eggs just how I liked them. I miss those days. When I eat over easy eggs now I can instantly be reminded of my early days. A runny egg makes me smile.

Biscuits & Gravy…slightly new to me, as I’ve only enjoyed this treat for just the past six years since moving to the great state of North Carolina. Well actually, in those years, I’ve slightly over-enjoyed it. Every time I eat biscuits and gravy, I get frustrated as to why I hadn’t been exposed to this earlier in my life, I guess it’s a North/South thing?

Everything Bagel with Cream Cheese…Normally, if I’m in New York or New Jersey, I’m enjoying a bagel at sometime within the first day of arrival. I have no control over it, as I find it virtually impossible to pass my favorite bagel shop with out hooking myself up. I’ve been told that this combonation is also the perfect cure for a hangover as well.

Since this topic is so dear to me, I’ve also decided to dig a bit furtherand ask my peers in the industry to weigh in on this topic as well. These chefs in my opinion, are some of healthcare’s top culinary influencers and leaders from around the country.These are the ones I stand with while making forward strides when it come to bringing “New School” Hospital Food to the forefront. Here is what they had to say about comfort food…


John Graziano CDM CFPP-Executive Chef– Valley Hospital, Ridgewood, New Jersey

John G

“It has to be fried calamari. It reminds me of going to the shore in the summer and celebrating at a restaurant with family. If it’s on a menu I’m ordering it. It’s the first thing I order when calling in for a pizza or sitting down at a diner. My wife thinks I’m nuts the amount of times she seen me eating it! It’s an Italian thing”

Shawn Dolan CEC, Executive Chef– UNC Hospitals, Chapel Hill, North Carolina


My favorite type of comfort food is desserts!  I tend to go to my two best friends for this Ben & Jerry.  My  top flavor is Chubby Hubby, but I always enjoy the new varieties as well.  The other dessert that I love is German Chocolate Cake.  Let me be clear though, when it comes to sweets, I do not discriminate! I used to eat a pint of Ben and Jerry’s about 3-4 times per week when I was working in New York.  After a marathon shift cooking, one needs a little comforting – I remember the flavor “Festivus” from Seinfeld.  It was gingerbread laden and it was amazing.  It was sold only for about two years in the late 90’s  around Christmas – I have been eagerly awaiting its return ever since.

German Chocolate Cake is something that I remember when I was a younger.  There was a killer bakery in the neighborhood where I grew up that sold it – and it became my favorite thing instantly!”

Aatul Jain, Executive Chef– St. Clare’s Health System, Denville, New Jersey


It’s crispy French fries with a little bit of cheese sauce and after I ‘ve indulged in the cheese sauce, French fries tossed with grated parmesan and truffle oil! For the record, its about #moderate indulgence- can’t over do the fried stuff!

Jim Mcgrody, Foodservice Director and Author of  What We Feed Our Patients- Raleigh, North Carolina


“Lasagna. My mother used to make a very good lasagna. It was about the only thing she made that was good. She used to be a little heavy handed with Thyme and her lasagna always had a distinct flavor because of that. It was not overpowering but it definitely had a presence. To this day Thyme reminds me of my mother and how good her lasagna was.”

Ron Sabatini, Director of Culinary Operations- Don Miller & Associates, Chula Vista, California

Ron Sabatini

“My favorite comfort food is pizza. It can be cheese , pepperoni or gourmet. I grew up on pizza and it makes me smile inside and outside when I make it for others or eat it with friends or family. Pizza has been a staple of south Philadelphia since before WWll but became most popular as WWll ended. Both my grandmothers made and baked their own crust and sauce for pizza. I see pizza as a food that makes people happy when they eat it.”

Tim Gee CEC, Executive Chef, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Tim Gee

“Jersey style thin(emphasis on the word thin) crust pizza all year round. If it’s summer time, I’m getting down with some tomatoes and Proscuitto or some fresh grilled corn with lime butter.

I was born in New Jersey with the sand between my toes and the waves in front of me, so this food brings me right back to my childhood and all is well.

Eric Eisenberg CEC, Corporate Executive Chef, Swedish Health Services, Seattle, Washington

Eric Eisenberg

“I find this one of the hardest questions to answer because it really depends on what part of me needs comforting. As you can all tell by looking at me I comfort myself with food a lot! SO I’m struggling to answer but if I had to lock it down I’d have to say… Authentic Asian soup of almost any variety. Ramen , Wonton , Pho , Hot and Sour, Egg Drop and of course my Bubbie’s Matzo Ball!”

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Hungarian Goulash, Then and Now

Being a chef, many people often ask me if I get my cooking inspiration from my mother. I quickly answer that question by saying… “No not really, but I get my work ethic from her and my father as well.” Growing up in Warwick, New York, they both worked two jobs just to make it happen. As far as dinner time was concerned, the meals were kept rather simple, and easy to prepare. Often we had “breakfast for dinner”, fish sticks, or spaghetti. My mother didn’t have much time to cook, she was always working! Every once in a while, I can remember chicken cutlets, or fried pork cutlets and applesauce that were quite enjoyable. In the colder months, my mother would sporadically make a dish that I remember grimacing at, just when I heard the name. Even if she said it today, I would still cringe.  Hungarian Goulash. Or as my mom use to say, GOOUUUUUUUUUUULASH! I’d never eat it, just the name would scare me away as a kid.
Some 30 years later though, and wearing my big boy pants on a daily basis, I’ve learned to appreciate this dish at a whole new level. Overtime, I’ve developed a true passion for properly braised meats…I know, a typical chef.

Recently, one of my cooks has brought Hungarian Goulash back into my life. With his cooking, he also brings back the memories of my mother’s attempt to recreate this classic. He’s made me a believer in Goulash!
Served about once a month in one of our retail outlets, It’s become a day that I truly get excited about. Every bite I have, I crave another, every bite, I think of being a kid again. I get excited for the opportunity I now have to now make it for my mother, the next time she visits North Carolina.

    Sometimes we spend a lot of time trying to re-invent something new on the culinary scene. Coming up with the next best thing is a challenge for all chefs. Every once in a while though, I encourage you to step back and honor the classics. Focus on building flavors, and flawless execution. The end result will be making people happy patients,  patrons, or guests.

 I’d like to also thank one of my best cooks, Kiron Ollivierre, who quite honestly makes some of the best Hungarian Goulash that I’ve ever had. Thanks for reminding me of home, thanks for reminding me of my Mom!
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Chef Kirons Hungarian Goulash Recipe
Cubed Beef Stew Meat 5#
Pork Fat                          1/2 cup
Red Wine                         4 cups
Chopped Garlic              1/2 cup
Diced Onion                    2 each
Diced Celery                   1 cup
Diced Green Pepper      1 cup
Beef Stock                       1/2 Gallon
Hungarian Paprika        1/2 cup
Chopped Fresh Parsley 1/4 cup
Sour Cream

Salt & Pepper to taste


1. Season beef cubes with salt, pepper. Heat the pork fat over medium heat, then add beef and sear on all sides.

2. Add garlic, onions, celery,  peppers, and Paprika Saute for about 3 minutes, string occasionally. Add the red wine, and let it reduce by half.

3. Once the red wine has been reduced, add the beef stock and bring to a boil. Once boiling, adjust the heat and bring it down to a simmer. Cook for about 1 hour at a slow simmer until the beef is fork tender. Make sure this is covered with a lid. Finish with freshly chopped parsley, and adjust seasonings as needed.

4. Garnish each portion with a dollop of sour cream.



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The Journey of a Healthcare Chef

The last ten years of my career have mostly been centered around one common goal, changing the public’s perception of “Hospital Food”. Over this journey, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, won many awards, and met many people whom share the same vision. One thing I know for sure , it’s not an easy path to venture down,  and as a chef in healthcare, there’s a handful of qualities you must have as a chef to carry out your vision.

Passion– This is the first step, and most important I believe. This is the backbone of your work. As a culinary leader in healthcare , your passion should be infectious throughout your team. It also provides the fuel needed to put in the time and effort needed for success, and to constantly be doing the right thing even when nobody else is watching. You can’t fake passion, if your operation has been trying to improve the level of food and service for years and have been unsuccessful, the first thing I’d look at, how passionate is the leader?

Commitment– As the chef, you will need to be “All in.” We all know that there’s certain perks for a chef to be working in healthcare, but really making a difference involves a bit more effort than just going through the daily motions. To truly make a difference, you need to be committed to continually challenging yourself to be better. Examples of this are attending industry trade shows, staying up on trends, new recipe development, competing in culinary competitions, achieving certifications, and having a presence in the local culinary community. Additionally, every new hire you make should be bringing on somebody that can bring you to your goal even sooner. You can’t just fill positions, you need to build a team. This takes commitment.

Follow Through– Do what you say you’ll do. Your team will see right through you if you lack follow through and over a period of time it will be harder to achieve your goals. As a culinary leader of a team on a mission, if you expect your team to follow through and support new initiatives, you must do the same. Set goals that you can realistically meet. Don’t focus on being first, focus on being best.

Visibility– You need to be visible. To your team, and to your organization. They should all know about your desire to improve healthcare food. They can support you greatly if they are aware of your vision. Nurses, cashiers, pot washers, and office personnel should know your teams stance on improving the food quality. They will help get the word out to the patients and community. They will get you the feedback from customers and patients that is crucial to your overall success.

Patience– Contrary to some of your beliefs, you are not a  magician, and you won’t be able to do it all at once. This is a journey, and it doesn’t happen overnight. If you think that putting everyone in a shiny new chef coat is the answer, you are wrong. This is a process which  will take years of hands on training. It contains numerous baby steps, so start small, get the results, and move to the next project.

Stay true to yourself and your goal, and you will start to make a difference. #HospitalFood

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