Making hospital food more palatable Weehawken chef Buzzelli serves up enjoyable menu at Engelwood Hospital

Anthony Buzzelli believes that he was destined to be a chef. He grew up in his Weehawken home constantly smelling the aromas of his mother’s Italian cooking.

“My parents are from Italy,” Buzzelli said. “I took an interest in cooking from my mother.”

Upon graduation from Hudson Catholic High School, Buzzelli wanted to pursue cooking as a profession.

“Most people consider it a hobby,” Buzzelli said. “I looked at it as a career. I was very excited about it. People tried to discourage me, but I knew what my strong points were.”

Buzzelli wanted to apply to the Culinary Institute of America out of high school, but needed some sort of professional experience before gaining admission. After working a year at the Loews Glenpointe Hotel in Teaneck, Buzzelli applied and subsequently gained admission to the CIA – the prestigious cooking school, not the central intelligence group.

“I felt like I needed a diploma,” Buzzelli said. “So I graduated with a degree in culinary arts and as a pastry chef.”

Buzzelli tried his hand in a few businesses, first as a pastry chef, then as a restaurant owner in Vermont.

“The year my business partner and I moved to open the restaurant in Vermont, it didn’t snow,” Buzzelli said. “It killed us.”

Buzzelli returned to Weehawken and decided to try being a chef at a hospital and worked at NYU Medical Center for a while, before getting the job as the executive chef at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. Hospital food. Just the thought of it makes people cringe and reach for the Pepto Bismol. One never thinks of hospital food as being a culinary delight.

“People have this idea that hospital food is lousy,” Buzzelli said. “I look at that as a challenge to me. Sure, we still have some bland foods. And we still serve macaroni and cheese and beef stew. But I make sure we also have poached salmon and prime rib on the menu as well. We also have Cornish hen. It’s restaurant style food, right down to the presentation, even with the garnish.”

Dietary needs

Born and raised in Weehawken, the 30-year-old Buzzelli takes a ton of pride in making more than 400 meals per day, for the patients, employees and doctors alike.

“Most hospitals have guys who cook who worked their way up from dishwasher,” Buzzelli said. “But take a lot of pride in what I make. I want to make everyone happy and I work hard in preparing a menu that is pleasing. Every day is a challenge and I do the best that I can.”

Buzzelli said that it’s a gigantic task, juggling all the different dietary needs of the patients, like low sodium and low acid diets.

“It’s tough, especially with the cardiac and high blood pressure patients,” Buzzelli said. “The challenge is to make the low sodium foods taste not so bland. So I use a lot of natural herbs, like fresh basil and oregano, to help the flavor.”

One of the latest projects that Buzzelli has started at the hospital has been the Bistro menu for new mothers, a special menu where new moms can get a made-to-order meal brought to their rooms.

The program was brought about because women after childbirth are not generally on the same mealtime schedule as others. Most women are downright ravenous after childbirth. A copy of the special Bistro menu is made available to the new mom when she arrives back in her room and as long as there have been no dietary restrictions placed, she is able to get whatever she wants.

Englewood Hospital Director of Food and Nutrition Nancy Kiely vividly recalls the menu when she gave birth. “When I had my first child in Scotland, I was offered tea and toast,” Kiely said. “I wanted a meal so badly at the time. I can still remember how hungry I was.”

“Our patients in the Mother-Baby program are a delight to feed,” Buzzelli said. “They are usually very hungry and happy, which are two of the qualities that any chef loves in a customer. Of course, we always take pride in serving good food, but there is a little extra sense of satisfaction when we contribute to the comfort of our maternity patients.”

There is a plan to add Asian selections to the Bistro menu for new moms, which will coincide with the cravings for Chinese food that some women experience while pregnant.

Cooking a menu for 400 people daily, as well as selected catering events can lead to a very hectic schedule, but it’s one that Buzzelli enjoys.

“It’s so hectic, but it’s also so much fun,” Buzzelli said. “Every day is interesting. I like what I’m doing, even though it gets tiring at times.”

Buzzelli said he enjoys the countless compliments he receives from patients about his cooking.

“I have a binder of compliments that I keep,” Buzzelli said. “Getting recognized by people, thanking you for the changes you’ve made. I appreciate that. It’s good to feel wanted.”

The demand for his services even carries over to his private life.

“I have so many family and friends that want me to make things for them, especially because I bake,” Buzzelli said. “They want cheesecakes and cannolis all the time, that I just turn the phone off and hide out. But I know it’s nice to be wanted.”

However, all the cooking has taken a bit of a toll on Buzzelli.

“It’s crazy, but when I go to a restaurant, I can’t eat,” Buzzelli said. “I don’t know what to eat and it’s very hard for me. A lot of chefs are that way. Even Emeril [Lagasse] will go to a place and just have a glass of wine. While I’m cooking, I’ll taste everything and I have a full course meal during the course of the day, so I eat. But I don’t cook at home and I can’t eat out. It’s strange that way.”

Almost as strange as actually calling hospital food “cuisine.”

“It really is,” Buzzelli said. “But I’m trying hard to get rid of that idea, that hospital food is always lousy. Some of it may be still lousy, but some of it is still very good.”


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