A short while ago Iakovos Apergis, the Tzaneio Hospital’s head cook, arrived at the Piraeus health facility carrying two big baking trays of pizza he had prepared the night before. The pizza was for the patients in the children’s psychiatric ward.
“These kids can eat almost anything. Why not give them something they really like?” said Apergis.
He had prepared the pizza at home because there was no bacon in the hospital kitchen. As is the case with supplies at other public sector bodies, the provision of ingredients at the hospital rests on tenders and deals signed with companies, and is based on a strict budget, which doesn’t allow for much in the way of flexibility. “If I ask for bacon I might lose something more substantial, so it’s not a good idea. There are only eight kids in this ward, so it’s not a big deal to make pizza for them once in a while,” he explained.
These are some of the strangely positive things happening at the Tzaneio Hospital since Apergis took charge of the kitchen. Part of his mission at the facility is abolish the term “hospital food.”
“There is no such thing as ‘hospital food;’ it was simply food that made life easier for everyone. It’s easier to cook unsalted dishes for everybody, but not all patients have to eat unsalted food,” he said.
For the last few years, the Tzaneio’s kitchen has been coming up with at least two different main courses daily. “We never cook one dish for all, unless we know it’s something everyone likes. But we won’t make spanakoriso [spinach and rice] or plain fish for children who very often don’t like them.”
In an effort to encourage children to eat fish, he came up with the idea of fish balls. The dish turned out to be a big hit, not just with the youngsters but with other patients as well.
“One day I was told a patient from the cardiology clinic was looking for me. I thought they had a complaint about the food. It turned out he wanted me to talk to his wife on the phone, because she didn’t believe him when he told her he had just eaten fish.”
Apergis enjoys the positive feedback. The people he cooks for are not like regular restaurant customers. These are people in pain, who feel insecure and possibly frightened. “For me, it’s even more important to hear ‘Bravo chef’ from the patients. They call me chef and I don’t correct them, but I’m really a cook.”
Apergis learnt to cook alongside his grandfather, a baker, with whom he grew up making eggs with pastourma and Canadian-style pizza with pepperoni. After finishing high school, he studied tourism, with the idea of becoming a barman. He then got his first job at Giorgos Tselementes’s Neon restaurant.
“There was a vacancy in the kitchen and I took the job. I needed pocket money to buy a gift. That’s where I got hooked.”
He had worked at a few different restaurants when he came across a job ad for a cook at the Tzaneio. His mother had died at the hospital following a long illness. “She had always lamented the hospital’s food, and that was something which I couldn’t get out of my mind,” he recalled.
Apergis arrived at the facility during a change of guard in the hospital kitchen. The older generation of the unsalted-meatball mentality was on its way out and young culinary school graduates were on their way in. “I started doing my own thing, without forcing anyone to follow me in the beginning. I tried to find recipes that kids enjoyed, to change the looks and textures of familiar dishes to make them more attractive. You don’t have to go to great lengths to add tomatoes, bread and lettuce and make biftekia (meatballs) look like burgers. It’s an extra five minutes of work. It doesn’t require a huge effort to make dessert for the doctors – not everyone is well paid.”
Apergis became the kitchen’s head, in charge of an energetic troupe of five good cooks, who, during days when the hospital is on duty for emergencies outside of normal hours, may end up serving food to 300 people, including doctors.
“Chicken soup is now solely for patients waiting for surgery, the rest eat moussaka, pastitsio and so on. We have a schedule, just like at home. We are cooks, perhaps with a few shortages, but with enough madness and appetite for doing things differently – we don’t have the usual public sector mentality,” he said.
According to Apergis, it’s important to end a shift feeling proud of the work accomplished. “I sometimes say I work at a five-star establishment. I get more satisfaction here than I would if I were working at a place where people pay to go to – even if the diners are in their pajamas.”
In the meantime, Apergis is also pursuing something else. He is working on a memo to the Health Ministry in which he asks for hospital kitchen staff to take part in educational seminars.
“As in all fields, you need to be constantly updated.” he said.
Every year he requests young cooks from culinary schools. “I don’t need to repeat the same process every year, it’s a standard request. Every year three first-year students should come to the hospital kitchen for practice. In the beginning they do a lot of assisting, but the following year they become regular cooks. They have a lot to gain from the experience. Also, in this way, hospital kitchens can carry on operating on their own, without catering companies having to enter the picture.”
Hospital work is something to be proud of, says Apergis. “We all became ‘chefs,’” he said. “But it’s also about peeling potatoes and courgettes, cleaning and mopping. When you train young kids at culinary schools by telling them that they will never have to clean anything, that’s how they will behave later on.
At the end of the day, trying to change things at a hospital, as opposed to coming up with the same menu day after day at a restaurant, is kind of cool.”
His passion is not without risk, though. “Yes, it’s possible you might end up displeasing some people because you might be forcing them out their comfort zone,” he said. “But there are others who might find that very exciting.”