Southern transplant brings new flavor to local hospital

Photo above: BMH Executive Chef changes the stigma of “hospital food.”

By Molly Ingram

My, how times have changed. Last time I was in a hospital, you got Jell-O served three ways. Today, at Beaufort Memorial, you simply pick up the phone and order whatever you like, however you want it, whenever you want it. Finally feeling better and craving an omelet at 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon? No problem. Just call and request one with cheese and mushrooms. Seems more like room service in a nice hotel than standard patient food at our local hospital. Such are the changes Executive Chef Eric Sayers has instituted in his tenure at Beaufort Memorial. Try and name another hospital which has an award winning, internationally trained chef leading their food preparation and delivery? Nope, I couldn’t think of one either.

Chef Eric is from Southbury, CT just outside of Hartford. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, Chef Eric worked in several restaurants in CT and NY. But then came an opportunity to teach in Switzerland. “There, as an assistant teacher at the Swiss Hospitality Institute, I was immersed in Swiss culture, and living only minutes from the French border, I got to experience a second culture first hand as well. I learned a lot about European training, life and cooking.” It also opened his eyes to the bigger role food can play in our lives.

After several years, Chef Eric headed back to the states and into a more traditional role as the Executive Chef at a restaurant near his home in Connecticut. But the winters finally got to him like they have with many of us southern transplants. So a road trip was planned that would traverse the east coast from Virginia to Florida. Two things happened while on the trip. The first was a simple stop at a gas station on Rt. 95 before he headed to Hilton Head to explore that area. Chef Eric walked into the gas station and was greeted with a heartfelt, “Hello” from the workers. This was such a different greeting than he was used to “up north” that the memory stuck with him. And secondly, while in Hilton Head, Chef Eric picked up a local paper to read about the community and came upon an ad for CQ’s restaurant that was looking for a new Executive Chef. Was it kismet? Who knows, but together it was enough to get Chef Eric to move to Hilton Head and work with CQ’s for the next 12 years.

But there was a challenge lurking out there that called to Chef Eric. How can you change the image of hospital food to reflect the trend toward tasty, healthy fare? “Food is such an important part of so much of what we do. In celebration or sorrow, we as humans come together around food. It binds us; it is a common denominator between every race. I am honored to work with such a powerful substance and create dishes that not only nourish our bodies but also comfort us and bring us joy.” I have to admit that I never thought of hospital food quite that way.

Chef Eric has been at Beaufort Memorial for a little over 3 years now and in the cafeteria you come across multiple grains you can add to your salad, a ton of fresh fruit that really looks fresh, and kale and other legumes (a technical word I learned) as part of their regular meal selection. When asked what his biggest surprise was moving from a high end restaurant to a hospital kitchen, Chef Eric reflected, “There are so many more specialized diets I needed to understand – way beyond the typical gluten intolerant or a need to avoid all milk products. I really enjoy working with the Dietitians as I am very interested in the nutritional aspect of food and how it helps restore the body.”

So his typical day starts at 6 a.m. and many times will last until 6 or 7 in the evening, what does Chef Eric do for fun? He cooks. He looks after his orchids which have become a small obsession with him, and he plays with his two dogs Derby and Hannah. When go goes out to eat, what kind of food is he looking for? With wife, Leslie, they head out for sushi or pizza. “Are you kidding? I LOVE pizza. I think I could eat it every day.” Why do I think a kale pizza might be in my future?

Chef Eric is definitely leading the charge of changing that perception of bland and boring hospital food which is such a good thing. Plus, he is teaching in conjunction with the hospital’s LifeFit Wellness teams about how to make meals more enjoyable and healthy without sacrificing time and energy.

So I will allow that you will still get Jell-O on occasion in the hospital. “It is just so easy for people to digest and there are ways to make it taste good. I promise!” I’m going to hold you to that Chef Eric if I ever end up staying overnight at Beaufort Memorial. And I am definitely ordering that omelet with lots of cheese, some mushrooms and kale if I must. But I am confident, I will still come away singing the praises of the kale and feeling better for it. Thanks Chef Eric for making a hospital stay less onerous. Now, about that omelet…

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