In 2016, Sven Gierlinger — SVP, Chief Experience Officer at Northwell Health, New York’s largest healthcare provider — was tasked with hiring a chef who could redefine the company’s approach to food.
At the time, the food ratings for quality and taste at Northwell’s 21 hospitals were at an all-time low of 9%, with survey comments from staff and patients ranging from “inedible” to “tastes like plastic.”
“We need chef expertise who cares and can provide healing through the food,” Gierlinger, 51, tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “The key is to focus not just on great food but healthy food, healthy ingredients.”
Gierlinger ultimately hired Michelin star chef Bruno Tison to overhaul the entire food system at Northwell. However, Tison — who spent 13 years as the executive chef at New York City’s star-studded Plaza Hotel — didn’t fully realize what he was in for.
“I scratched my head and said, ‘Oh my God, where do I start?'” the French-born chef recalls. “Ninety percent of the food was frozen or pre-packaged. They didn’t have a competent chef. The kitchen equipment was falling apart. So as you can imagine, the food was just terrible. It was scary.”
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Despite his alarming first impressions, Tison, 63, joined as the Vice President of System Food Services and Corporate Executive Chef in October 2017. He said it was a new culinary challenge he’d been looking for in his career. “I thought, ‘If I want to impact the world, changing food in healthcare would be fantastic,'” he says.
Tison immediately started recruiting top chefs from around the world who had never worked in a hospital kitchen — and knew how to use fresh ingredients to create healthy, made-to-order dishes.
He also upgraded the kitchens and partnered with the hospitals’ dieticians so the new staff could produce a range of culturally diverse meals—from Asian to Latin American to kosher—with all the nutritional requirements for patients and their various treatment plans.
“It’s about creating a new culture around food and nutrition in healthcare and making sure that culture and that vision goes through the entire system,” Tison explains.
His plan also provides patients with a more fulfilling experience overall, with newly designed menus and seasonal specials tied to local farms and produce resources “This is an opportunity to personalize care and provide a moment of enjoyment,” he adds.
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After five years, Tison is credited for transforming that stereotypical bad hospital food into high quality, healthy meals — creating a blueprint for other healthcare systems to follow.
“I’m not going to say we reinvented [the food plan],” Tison continues. “We recreated it.”
Northwell’s food ratings have since skyrocketed, with many of their hospitals averaging more than 90 percent. Tison has also started advising other healthcare companies around the country on how to create similar programs of their own.
“It’s almost turned into a responsibility for us,” says Gierlinger. “Patients deserve better food in hospitals wherever they are. It’s been neglected for so long.”
Tison added, “We want to transport patients into the world of food — where maybe, for just 15 minutes, when they’re reading their menus, they can forget about their illness. And I think it’s really working.”
For the full story on Chef Bruno Tison, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.