Cool Jobs: NIH Executive Chef

Monday - 8/22/2011, 2:01am EDT

By Jolie Lee
Federal News Radio

Move over, Jell-O cups. The National Institutes of Health is serving up restaurant-quality meals to patients receiving treatment at its Bethesda, Md., campus.

The NIH Bethesda kitchen serves 150 patients, each with their own dietary restrictions. Robert Hedetniemi, NIH's certified executive chef, tells Federal News Radio he starts planning specials six weeks in advance, working closely with a staff dietician. Then a panel of dieticians reviews the recipe.

"We kick it back and forth until we're comfortable with it," Hedetniemi said.

When it's finalized, the recipe is put into a computer system that manages each patient's diet, ensuring patients are allowed to eat what they order.

Patients call in food orders anytime when the kitchen is open, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., much like a hotel.

"So we can get an order for a steak and cheese at 7 in the morning, and we can get an order for an omelette at 6 o'clock at night," Hedetniemi said.

He added, "That's one of the only choices [the patients] actually have here. They can't control the time and day of their medication, but they can control what they eat and when they eat."

Patients come from all over the world, so "they bring their tastes from all over the world," he said.

Hedetniemi tries to incorporate different ethnic flavors and includes in the menu the option to customize certain foods - like pizza toppings or build-your-own salads and sandwiches.

"My job is to try to appease as many people as possible, providing as many food products as possible," he said.

Hedetniemi started at NIH late last year, making it his goal to add more fresh, local ingredients to the menu and getting rid of frozen vegetables. NIH now cooks corn on the cob instead of frozen corn and zucchini summer squash instead of frozen green beans.

They also develop recipes based on the produce of the season and the availability of locally grown and caught food.

"So we have Maryland crabcakes because we're in Maryland," he said.

Hedetniemi said his NIH job allows him to be creative while helping to meet the agency's mission to eradicate disease and enhance health.

"It's probably without a doubt the best decision I've made, and I've cooked all over the East Coast. I've been all over the world … I work with some of the smartest people I've ever had the privilege to work with here at the NIH," Hedetniemi said.

Hedetniemi came to NIH with a restaurant background. Previously, he owned a steakhouse in South Carolina. When the economy declined, Hedetniemi decided to seek new job opportunities.

His father, a Naval base machinist for 30 years, encouraged Hedetniemi to consider working for the federal government. Hedetniemi's career at NIH is actually a return to public service. He served in the Navy in the early '90s, and the G.I. Bill paid for his degree at culinary school.

Unlike owning a restaurant, Hedetniemi said food safety is the priority at NIH and can even "trump taste."

However, he said it's still possible to bring a great-tasting meal to the patients.

"Creativity lies within the person," he said. "Of course there's different restraints within this environment and different hurdles to jump through and a little bit more paperwork, but that should not deter anyone from thinking that you can't get a job done."