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Canadian chef’s work improving hospital food earns award nomination

Canadian chef’s work improving hospital food earns award nomination said it couldn’t be done. They said you can’t make hospital food edible. But one Canadian chef proved you can — and now she’s up for a prestigious culinary award.

Toronto-based Joshna Maharaj first set her culinary sights on the Scarborough Hospital. She arrived in 2011, as the head chef, teaching the kitchen staff there how to make flavour-packed meals for patients.

“Nobody knew what we could do, but everybody knew we had to do something, because hospital food is so bad,” she said. “It is so famously terrible.”

So out went bland prepackaged meals. In their place, meals using fresh basic ingredients, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and meats from local producers. Maharaj was delighted with how patients responded. 

“First, disbelief when we put the first plate of fresh, bright, crunchy, scratch-made beautiful food,” she says. When a patient’s roommate noticed the change in meals, “He said, ‘I’m getting that too, right?'”

Providing decent meals to people already in a vulnerable state — hospital patients — has brought her pure gratification, especially when she took her institutional food changes to the kitchens of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.

Like the time she tested Ontario heritage grain buttered biscuits in the maternity ward. “Nothing made me happier than taking two warm biscuits up to a woman who had just delivered,” she said.

Maharaj thought of clever ways to improve the food delivered to patients’ beds. She replaced toast with frittatas, for instance, “because no toast can survive the journey under that sweaty [serving tray] dome.” A frittata can handle the steam and finish cooking en route and arrive in good shape to eat.

It’s not only the patients who are satisfied. “Re-thinking the way institutions purchase, cook and serve food is a win-win-win,” she says. “It’s great for the economy. It’s great for our small producers. Most important, it’s great for our patients, students and — dare I suggest — our prisoners.”

Canadian chef Joshna Maharaj offers some healthy treats at Luminato’s Neighbourhood Food Festival in Toronto. She is a finalist in the Basque Culinary World Prize. (Kas Roussy)

That’s right, the chef would like to provide healthier grub to the incarcerated. “I don’t know that just because prisoners are convicted of crimes means that they should eat poorly,” she says. “I don’t buy that connection.” She laments that funding for the healthy meal program has run out, but Maharaj says she hopes she can secure new money. read more at