Hospice Care Week starts next Monday - and in the first of two special features to mark the occasion, Star reporter Richard Blackledge visited St Luke’s Hospice in Sheffield to find out about its improved food service
IF many people were asked to imagine the type of food served in a hospice, they would likely issue a predictable response, describing bland, pre-prepared meals, with little about them to tempt the appetite.
But St Luke’s Hospice in Whirlow has turned this idea on its head by introducing a new, hotel-style hospitality service.
Patients at the end of their lives are able to see out their days eating the finest cuisine, cooked by a five-strong team led by head chef Nick Wilkes.
The chefs pride themselves on being able to offer hospice residents anything they desire, at times to suit them - be it fillet steak for breakfast, tapas, bespoke pizzas or indulgent desserts.
As well as being given the chance to go off-piste with their choices, patients also have a variety of menus to choose from, offering three-course meals featuring hearty fare along with lighter bites.
Bread, biscuits, cookies, soup and pasta are made daily and freshly prepared juices and smoothies are available throughout the day.
Dishes are served by waiters and presented as they would in a top hotel or restaurant - napkins, quality cutlery and stylish crockery are the order of the day.
The chefs also cook for St Luke’s visitors and staff, including nurses and therapists.
Nick said he was pleased with the service’s response so far, and that even more new innovations are still to come.
“Whatever patients want, they get, and if we can’t get it today we’ll guarantee it for tomorrow,” said the chef.
“If it was your mum, you would want her to have everything she possibly can. That’s what we hope and aspire to offer.”
Nick, aged 46, from Totley, trained at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay and worked with Sheffield restaurateur Richard Smith at the Inn At Troway.
He was brought to St Luke’s two years ago as a consultant to organise the new menus, and stayed on afterwards as his passion for the job grew.
Before the introduction of the hospitality service, nursing staff were responsible for ordering and serving meals, which sometimes caused difficulties when they were called away on clinical duties.
Much of the food was also prepared in bulk from frozen stock, but Nick said the standard is now ‘completely different’.
“It’s been a slow process but now about 98 per cent of what we produce is made fresh, on-site.
“There used to be only one or two things freshly made, it’s just far better now. The menus are really good, better than at least 70 per cent of the restaurants in Sheffield.
“The patients have a choice, it’s like being at home.”
Nick said he was spurred on to create better dishes after being disappointed with the quality of food served to his mum when she was hospitalised following a stroke two and a half years ago.
He added that the menus also reflect people’s changing tastes, and dissatisfaction with old fashioned, institutionalised food.
“People have become more cosmopolitan, they want things like olives, mezzes, tapas, down to funky pizzas.
“We do wacky things too. Last Christmas a young guy just wanted Vodka Red Bulls - Bailey’s lollipops is another one.
“We have different ideas for presentation too, little buckets for chips and some meals can come on slates.”
Nick said the chefs don’t forget the sobering reality of their workplace, despite the fun atmosphere in the kitchen.
“A lot of people are on medication so their diets are really changed. You can over-face people too if they haven’t got a big appetite, and certain patients have to have certain bowls and plates.
“Working with St Luke’s, you can’t take things personally, its very hard.”
He said the chefs try and keep up spirits as much as possible.
“We have a laugh and a joke. Christmas is a great time, we all come in and have a bottle of champagne, it’s just ace.”
Nick said community groups have rallied round to help the St Luke’s kitchen staff. Volunteers from Abundance, the Sheffield organisation which collects unwanted fruit and vegetables, deliver a batch of produce every weeks, while pork is provided by Moss Valley Meats.
“It’s good for the community, they look after us and we look after them. We don’t get a lot of money but it is achievable within a budget,” he said.
“We were doing this way before people like James Martin!”
The St Luke’s menu is set for another seasonal change soon, and Nick has his heart set on introducing a novel new meal - a burger served in a rustic wooden box - as well as taking delivery of an ice cream machine.
“We’ll be able to start doing ice creams and sorbets, margaritas and daiquiris,” the chef said.
“This is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. It’s great. We don’t charge for anything and the patients come first, no matter what.
“Their faces light up when they realise they can have whatever they want. We know we’re doing a good job if we see people coming in without food they’ve brought in themselves!”
Visit www.besurprised.org.uk to find out more about Hospice Care Week.