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Food for healing… (Part Three)

February 24, 2012

Cancer Treatment Centers of America  – Part Three: The Kitchen

On my second visit out to the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) I had a chance to meet with Executive Chef Frank Caputo.  Since our relationship began with CTCA I have heard from Bob time and again about Chef Caputo.  He and Bob hit it off immediately.  When I met Frank I knew why instantly.  Chef Caputo is not only as fanatic about organic produce as Bob, but they also share that same unstoppable work ethic, attention to detail, palette for quality, and sincere love and compassion for the people they serve.   Those traits in a chef make for excellent dining in any restaurant, but when you health is on the line, having Chef Caputo in the kitchen is like having a prizefighter in your corner.

The CTCA wasn’t an obvious choice for Chef Caputo.  As a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Chef Caputo had built a career heading up the kitchens of upscale restaurants and country clubs along the East Coast.  Cooking wasn’t just a passion it was in his DNA.  He grew up working in his family’s Italian restaurant outside of Pittsburgh.  His Italian roots had long held a close relationship between the chef and the farmer.  He had learned early the value of always knowing where his food came from and who grew it.  When he went to the Culinary Institute of America he wanted to master the classic French techniques to go along with his old school Italian cooking, and he wanted to work for a chef that really knew how to cook.  It was at the Culinary Institute of America that Chef Caputo met his mentor and closest friend, Chef Jack Shoop, the same man who would introduce him to the CTCA years later.

In his years since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Chef Caputo spent his time and talents perfecting the art of haute cuisine and enjoyed working along side his mentor Chef Shoop many times.  He credits Chef Shoop with expanding his culinary education and continuing to lead and inspire him in the kitchen.  When the idea of opening the kitchen and dining room for the CTCA in Goodyear was first introduced to him by his friend, Chef Caputo balked.  Chef Shoop was heading the kitchen for the CTCA in Philadelphia and felt like it would be a good move for Chef Caputo as well.  But for Chef Caputo moving from fine dining to a hospital kitchen felt like a step backwards, or maybe like one off a cliff.  After years of perfecting his talent, this was not in his game plan.  He had cooked for world leaders, celebrities and athletes that were name brands, and he was building a name for himself in the culinary world.  A hospital kitchen seemed like the antithesis to everything he had done.  But the thought wouldn’t go away, and during a time of real personal reflection, he decided that he needed a change and wanted to focus on doing things for others.  When he shifted his thinking outwardly, the CTCA became the natural choice.  This kitchen was not about him, his ideas, recipes, or talent; it was about serving others.  Meals at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America have the power to change lives, in hearing Chef Caputo talk, it sounds like they changed his as well.  He came out to the CTCA in Goodyear to open the kitchen and get them started and has been with them ever since.  He says he can’t imagine being anywhere else.

From the moment Chef Caputo arrived at the CTCA, his focus was completely on creating meals that had as many cancer-fighting properties as possible, while maintaining the quality and flavor that he had built a career on.  Just as Sharon Day, the CTCA’s Director of Nutrition, Chef Caputo’s goal is to introduce as much variety and quantity of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables into every dish served to patients.

McClendon’s Select organic produce is used every possible way in the CTCA kitchen from the freshly juiced drinks and smoothies in the café to adding vegetable purees to dishes as a substitute for other ingredients.  They are found on every plate.  Chef Caputo wants those antioxidants and nutrients available to patients as much as possible, and in whatever flavor, form or recipe that will appeal to them the most.  On an average week, Chef Caputo makes about 35 gallons of vegetable stock from scratch.  In fact, his kitchen makes everything from scratch, so he may control the quality and purity of the ingredients as much as possible.  (I even spied ketchup made from scratch in the refrigerated walk-in.)  I didn’t see anything that came in a can, but instead the kitchen shelves were filled with organic beans, rice, and grains of every variety.  The meats, dairy, including cheeses, and even the coffee are all 100% organic.  Chef Caputo has even gone as far as to find organic spices and sesame seeds to use.  He is a fanatic for detail.  Cornstarch or tapioca is used as a substitute for flour; fruit juices are used to substitute wine in recipes; salt and fats are cut out.  He admitted that it was hard getting away from using flour, but he did it and doesn’t look back. He wants everything that goes into the food served at CTCA to be working for the patient in their cancer fight.

Do not be fooled into thinking that this is just hospital food with organic ingredients. Chef Caputo is creating the classic French dishes that he has done throughout his career, along with reinventing the Italian dishes he grew up on.  But his culinary education has expanded now to look critically at the nutritional value of his food, as well as the flavors.  He wants his food to be on the same level and standard as everything else at the CTCA, meaning exemplary.  I can personally attest that when walking into the kitchen the smell wafting through made my mouth water.  Marsha and I both wanted to pull up a chair and have a bowl of whatever was cooking.  That was not a reaction I thought I would ever have in a hospital kitchen.  He has elevated hospital dining to such a point that dignitaries are once again coming to Chef Caputo’s dining room.  He even recently cooked for one of the presidential candidates.  But for the chef, it is all about the cancer patients now.  They are the ones that Chef Caputo is honored to serve, and he speaks of them with reverence.

Chef Caputo regularly works fourteen-hour days in the kitchen, but he will tell you that the most important part of his day is during the dining hours.  He spends mealtime in the dining room so he can get to know the patients, their families and caretakers personally.  He asks each of them what do they need from him.  He sits and talks with the patients to find out what flavors they like, what dishes they make at home, and what would provide them comfort during a time when they need it the most. Often times Chef Caputo will bring patients back into the kitchen to give them a tour.  He gives them recipes, teaches cooking techniques, does demonstration classes, and offers nutritional advice.  But this isn’t just about food.  He asks about their diagnosis and treatment plan and what issues are they having as a result. He wants to know their story and how he can help.  And his help comes in many different forms, far beyond the kitchen.

One patient he met had been diagnosed with throat cancer and had been told to visit an oral surgeon to have his teeth removed, as they would likely be lost as a result of radiation anyway.  For someone who loved food and eating, this advice was as shocking as the diagnosis.  The patient rejected that advice, and instead came to the CTCA for treatment.  He wanted to maintain his dignity.  He had once been a big man with a big appetite for food and for life, but when Chef Caputo met him, he was emaciated.  His throat was raw from his treatments leaving him unable and unwilling to eat.  Dietitians were encouraging him to put on weight so that he would have the strength to continue his fight, but he was rejecting the suggestion of a feeding tube.  That seemed again like a humiliation that he couldn’t face. Chef Caputo sat with him and asked what he could do.  What did he eat before his diagnosis?  What flavors did he crave?

Chef Caputo then went to the kitchen and fixed this patient five different meals, each pureed versions of food this man had once enjoyed.  When he went back to check in on the patient to see if any of these dishes might encourage him to eat once again, he was surprised to see that the patient had finished all of them.  He hadn’t just finished his meal, but for the first time since his treatments had begun, he had enjoyed food once again.  It was a step forward that gave him strength well beyond the physical to continue his battle.  This, Chef Caputo told me, is why he can’t imagine being in any other kitchen.  This particular patient has now been in remission for over two years, with his appetite back and his dignity intact.  

This was just one patient of the Chef Caputo, I could tell that he has many more similar stories of patients who need his help just as they need their doctors’.  When he speaks of the patients, he talks of them like they are his own.  He says that he wants his patients to feel spoiled, like they are at a country club with their every need met.  He wanted this dining room to have an open arm feeling and it does.  This is a calm, healing place where patients can relax and forget for a moment why they are there.  They don’t have to worry about what they are eating, how it was made, and if it will work with the advice given by their doctors, because Chef Caputo has already done that for them.  He keeps in touch with many of the patients he meets, checking in on them when they are back home, sending recipes, good wishes and encouragement.  He told me that his dining room is filled with a lot of laughter and smiles and said that many have told him that they miss his kitchen.

Imagine that – missing a hospital kitchen.

Having seen it for myself, I completely understand.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America
at Western Regional Medical Center
14200 W. Fillmore Street
Goodyear, Arizona  85338

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Paula V permalink
    March 1, 2012 4:04 am

    I’d love to know how to substitute for flour in recipes!

    • March 1, 2012 5:49 pm

      I would like to know as well. I have asked for more information on how to substitute flour. I will make sure to share that on the blog when I find out.

  2. Jesus permalink
    March 1, 2013 8:54 pm

    We use a cornstarch slurry.

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