Patrick Wodni, far left, is hoping his locally sourced, healthy meals will inspire other institutions. (Gordon Welters for The New York Times)
With the skill of a chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant, Patrick Wodni quickly assembled the ingredients he would need for the day’s lunch special, an onion tart. But instead of putting them into his favorite stainless steel mixing bowl, he poured the sour cream, eggs, cumin, fenugreek, red pepper and turmeric into an industrial-size vat and mixed it with both hands.
“Usually, you would eat this with a nice glass of Riesling,” said the 29-year-old Mr. Wodni. “Sadly, you are in the hospital.”
Part of an unusual experiment — one that Mr. Wodni left his job as a chef at one of Berlin’s hottest restaurants to lead — the hospital has replaced its standard-issue schnitzels with locally grown organic vegetables, grass-fed beef and catfish raised at an environmentally conscious aquafarm.
Many hospitals simply reheat frozen meals brought in from outside, but Mr. Wodni has shown it is possible to improve the quality of hospital food while keeping costs low.
This project, he hopes, will be a first step in transforming the way institutions like schools and hospitals prepare food.
“When I started, I took the budget, and said, ‘What’s doable with what we have?’ ” Mr. Wodni said early one morning in the hospital kitchen. Pausing to take a bite of a carrot grown on an organic community farm just down the road, Mr. Wodni explained that, in keeping with industry standards, Havelhöhe spends 4.74 euros, about $5.50, on food per person, per day.
“I couldn’t eat well” spending so little, he said. “But when you make 500 meals a day, you can scale.”
Mr. Wodni’s first move was to stop ordering from the company that had supplied most of the hospital’s food. “You couldn’t tell if it was minced meat or a sponge,” he said.
André Nagy and his partner, Kathleen Kuntzsch, chose Havelhöhe in part because the food was so good. (Gordon Welters for The New York Times)
Then he contacted local organic farmers, bakers, butchers and sustainable freshwater fish farms. Within seven months, the hospital went from using three wholesalers to working with nine producers and six wholesalers.
“My main goal with this was to build a direct local trade relationship between farmers, gardeners, bakeries and fishermen with the hospital,” Mr. Wodni said. “Sourcing good ingredients is actually the most important part of my job.”
Mr. Wodni then began milling spelt and rye grains, and making his own cheese. “Everything we can do from scratch, we do from scratch,” he said. “It’s a choice, to create change from within.”
Pointing to studies that showed the positive impact a healthy diet can have on diabetes and heart disease, Harald Matthes, a gastroenterologist and one of the hospital’s directors, called Mr. Wodni “a jewel.”
André Nagy, whose partner, Kathleen Kuntzsch, was breast-feeding their newborn daughter in the hospital, agreed. He said the couple had chosen Havelhöhe in part because of the food. “Food is important, you’re here to heal,” Mr. Nagy said.
Now that the Havelhöhe program was up and running, Mr. Wodni said he was stepping out of day-to-day cooking and into a more supervisory role.
His ambition is to enact reform beyond the hospital walls. He is consulting with other public institutions to improve the quality of their food.
“I think I was always critical of society,” Mr. Wodni reflected during a brief pause before calls from the kitchen staff for more rice for the lunchtime plating drew him back into the fray. “If you create demand for good products, I think there’s a huge potential for change.”