Executive chef settles into new position at Altoona hospital

The mention of hospital food doesn’t typically tantalize one’s tastebuds.

That is until now.

“I do think in this day and age of hiring executive chefs, times are changing from the stereotype that hospitals are perceived as not such a great place to eat, but now their food is more palatable and presentable,” UPMC Altoona’s Executive Chef Keith Auker said in a written statement. “The executive chef is there to add that special touch to the food and diets that have restrictions by using fresh herbs and vegetables. Not overcooking their food, implementing progressive cooking techniques, keeping food as fresh as possible.”

Auker, 45, of Schellsburg, who started in February, is the first executive chef hired at UPMC Altoona hospital.

A 1985 graduate of Bedford High School, Auker retired from a more than 26 year Navy career in 2011. From 2004 to 2011, he was the executive chef and household manager for the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where he was responsible for formal entertaining of high-level government officials and distinguished visitors, according to a hospital press release.

Before that, he was a personal chef for a European four-star admiral in Italy for five years.

Auker earned his certification as an executive chef from the American Culinary Federation. He got his household manager certification from the Starkey International Institute in Denver and from the International Wine Guild, his wine cellar manager certification.

He also has won awards such as the Meritorious Service Medal in honor of his service to the Naval Academy superintendent. The award is one of the highest a sailor can receive, the release said.

Before coming to the hospital, Auker was the executive chef and manager at the Arandale Lounge and Ballroom at the Bedford Elks Country Club.

In the Navy, he learned skills he applies at the hospital, such as leadership, he said.

Auker, who spoke highly of those he works with at the hospital, said he believes an executive chef is a link between the culinary staff and the dietary staff and nutrition director.

“Chefs cook and make menus; dietitians make sure they are nutritional and healthy,” he said. “The executive chef makes sure the staff has the tools and knowledge to complete their mission to prepare their food properly. The executive chef brings out the best in his staff and fine tunes the skills and the working knowledge that already exists.”

The hospital is implementing a host or hostess program, he said. A trained staff member personally takes menu orders and delivers it to patients.

“We have upgraded the way we prepare and present our food to our patients by using different cooking techniques, fresh herbs and vegetables and proper garnishing, most important making sure our patients don’t have to work to eat their food by ensuring food is bite size, moist and easily digested,” he said.

As the person in charge of patient menus, Clinical Nutrition Manager Dona Baughman has worked closely with Auker since he was hired.

Auker has “been very instrumental in helping us develop new recipes for the patients so that it tastes good, but it still meets our guidelines for salt and fat and all those types of things,” she said.

Baughman praised his food, joking that it is so good, her waistline is suffering.

He has made the food look more appealing, too, which is important in particular for patients who might not have an appetite, she said.

Auker started his own initiative to offer gluten-free items in the cafeteria, Baughman said.

“He has been wonderful. I mean he has been a very positive edition to our team so I’m looking forward to more changes and us working together more,” she said.

The cafeteria has become more popular and received positive reviews there and at staff luncheons, Baughman said.

“Food and service takes a lot of TLC, and here at our hospital all of our staff takes pride in all they do,” Auker said. “What I stress to my kitchen is that we give back to our community and to the nurses and doctors who deserve to be treated with five-star service because they dedicate their life to provide a service to ensure we stay healthy, live longer through their skills as doctors and nurses.

“The bottom line is we all have service hearts and here at the hospital we are working for a purpose.”

Mirror Staff Writer Amanda Gabeletto is at 949-7030.