SPRING HILL — From wobbly green gelatin to soupy pabulum to cold coffee, hospital food has long been the target of bad jokes and patients' complaints.
At some hospitals, though, that is changing — including at Oak Hill Hospital, where officials recently announced the hiring of a new executive chef: Rolando LaTorraca.
"Executive chef is a new role for Oak Hill Hospital," Maria DeNicola, the hospital's director of food nutrition services, said.
Indeed, LaTorraca, 47, is an authentic executive chef, having grown from a dishwashing youngster in his father's Italian restaurant in Chicago to graduate at age 21 from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He then served in a number of top positions in restaurants, corporate dining and institutional food management.
At Oak Hill, LaTorraca, who joined the staff in mid December, plans some 20 diet-restricted menus each day and oversees preparation of more than 200 meals three times a day.
His biggest challenge? "To make it taste good with low sodium and low fat," he said.
Whether the menu is clear liquids, pureed, heart healthy, carb-controlled or regular, it's "very important" to limit both salt and fat, the chef said.
"To me, without salt is . . ." La Torraca said, with a shake of his head.
Though salt brings out the flavors of food and helps to tenderize meat proteins, Americans consume too much of the basic seasoning, he acknowledged.
Although DeNicola said she has heard more compliments than complaints about the food at Oak Hill in her year as nutrition director, she conceded, "The biggest complaint would be from patients not used to low salt."
LaTorraca offers up a "fridge with alternatives."
"Fresh herbs," he said, "garlic, rosemary, sage, lemon, salt-free seasoning (blends), even some vinegars give a salty taste."
Oak Hill's parent company, Nashville-based Hospital Corp. of America, maintains a culinary team that supplies basic recipes and menus to its 165 hospitals in 20 states.
But, LaTorraca said, "Creativity can be there. We can add to it."
He proved that as he tried out for his current position.
LaTorraca was asked to make an HCA-approved recipe for panko-breaded chicken breast, a sample of which he thought looked and tasted blah.
"I sauteed cherry tomatoes and garlic, tons of basil and scallions, and put it on top," he said. "That's what made it pop."
The chef said he prefers fresh over processed.
In the past, the hospital's kitchen utilized a canned marinara sauce.
"Being Italian," LaTorraca said with a grin, "it's not hard to make a (fresh) marinara sauce."
Also, instead of cooking frozen vegetables and then holding them for long periods in a steam table, "we have a steamer," he said. "In a couple of minutes, we can cook fresh in batches."
LaTorraca said he's "a chef, not a nutritionist," but he knows that fresh helps maintain vitamins and minerals, as well as taste.
LaTorraca's creativity extends to two additional areas of the hospital: the cafeteria for staff and visitors and in a catering arm that provides food for in-house luncheons and dinners for physicians' gatherings, hospital board meetings and professional organizations.
For a recent event, he prepared braised pork chops with a flamed apple brandy sauce over a bed of apples and craisins, with garlic smashed potatoes accompanying the dish.
Beyond his knowledge of ingredients and flavors, and his experience with concocting and defining recipes, LaTorraca has been willingly charged with teaching techniques to the largely novice 40-plus people who make up the hospital's kitchen staff.
"I want to train them in basics," he said. "(A recipe) says saute, but they do not know the word, or why."
To each of his responsibilities at Oak Hill, LaTorraca brings experience. While working in corporate dining in suburban Chicago, the company took on a health care client, and LaTorraca eventually was placed there as the hospital's executive chef.
He and his family had vacationed in Florida, ultimately deciding to leave winters behind and move to Citrus County. His wife, Sue, is a school nurse. Their sons are ages 15 and 13.
At Oak Hill, LaTorraca doesn't alter a patient menu without running it by a dietitian. But, "my goal is to bring in my own recipes," he said.
He mentions chicken Tampico, with a spicy white cheese and Mexican herb sauce; salmon with spinach, artichokes and white wine; and a chef's salad with blackened chicken and pecans and a blue cheese-balsamic dressing.
Although strained foods will remain on designated patient trays, the chef promises eye-appealing and tasty dishes.
And LaTorraca and DeNicola say they have a plan in place to ensure that the coffee will be served hot.
Beth Gray can be reached at [email protected]