Chef Ryan Conklin is one of many integral members of the Culinary and Nutrition Services team that ensures all patients, staff and guests of Rex Hospital are satisfied with their meals. Unlike many institutions of their magnitude, Rex Hospital operates their food service operation under their own team without a food service contractor. With the creativity of their team, they have steadily made waves and pioneered a new “hospital food” movement.
Chef Ryan’s culinary journey first began in New York. Raised in a family with working parents, not a lot of cooking happened in the Conklin household. Despite this, Chef Ryan was intrigued with this world and worked hard before attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Throughout school, Chef Ryan worked as a private chef for clients. He credits this time to being able to expand and explore the creativity of the kitchen, as he was given free rein to develop and execute meals. After graduating from the CIA, Chef Ryan found himself working as a chef and manager of a hospital. He says this was a time of growth for him as he “learned how to manage, how to motivate employees and be fair, how to be a strong leader and do things the right way.”
Chef Ryan was hungry for his next challenge and ready to settle into having a work-life balance. He questioned where he wanted to be and where that next step would be taken. Chef Ryan and his family moved down south to where he began his UNC Healthcare career – first at UNC’s flagship hospital in Chapel Hill before eventually transferring over to Rex Hospital in Raleigh. In Chapel Hill is where Chef Ryan first met Jim McGrody, the creator of the industry-changing program, the Black Hat Chef. Chef Ryan and Jim continue to work together today, as Jim is currently Rex’s Culinary and Nutrition Director.
The Black Hat Chefs is an innovative culinary program that Jim, Ryan, and their sous chefs use to ensure all members of their team have the proper skills and techniques developed to create really good food. This includes everything from developing knife skills, learning about mother sauces and many other culinary necessities in order to properly run a large food service operation. Chef Ryan states the Black Hat Chefs training program has become a “culture of what can be served in healthcare and is a way for us to keep pushing ourselves and other healthcare settings to step outside of our comfort zones. This is a means of motivation for others to inspire and do more than anything.”
This means meals aren’t plopped out onto cafeteria trays from a bunch of cans at Rex Hospital. Rex utilizes ingredients from their on-site garden, including produce and herbs that are prepared and served just yards away in their kitchen. Of course, due to the volume of their operation, Chef Ryan outsources for much of their produce. However, they utilize local, seasonal produce whenever possible.
Innovation is rampant in the Rex kitchen, with their staff/public cafeteria really rivaling many restaurants. They have several concepts that range from a fresh salad bar with rotating grain salads, an action station with daily specials, a highlighted healthy meal option that changes daily, a grill section with cooked-to-order items, hot food favorites that are comforting and a grab and go section of snacks and wraps. This is just on the bottom floor of the hospital. On the second floor across from the gift shop, there is another area that serves up build-your-own salads, custom burrito bowls, scratch made pizzas, wraps and sandwiches, desserts, coffee drinks and a mini grab and go section, too. The variety is endless and no one goes through a meal unsatisfied, whether it be a patient, staff member or visiting guest.
The Black Hat Chefs program has received much attention across the U.S. and throughout the healthcare industry. Chef Ryan continues on to say this educational program is a way to have constant involvement with employees, encourage professional development and create engaged workers who have an investment in their team and Rex, as a whole. “Everything we do is a team effort. We want to encourage and give our employees the ability to be part of the next special team, whether it be for a competition, private event, etc. When employees feel engaged and valued, everyone wins,” says Chef Ryan.
Chef Ryan is incredibly modest, giving the credit to his team for the many accolades Rex Hospital’s Culinary and Nutrition department has received. Don’t be fooled, as Chef Ryan can most definitely throw down inside the “mainstream” culinary world, too. He and his team worked hard and prevailed as the winners of the entire Got to Be NC Competition Dining Series in 2015. Chef Ryan credits his experience producing 4500 meals per day at Rex and catering to the masses as a major reason why they won. He says, “We’re used to tailoring food to what people like and what they love to eat. We used our understanding of working in a high-volume healthcare setting to help us compete.”
Chef Ryan is a talented man with many projects in the works. From speaking engagements to private dinner events with Rex, the offers keep coming in. Chef Ryan and his team, however, keep true to their beginnings in making sure they continue to do all the little things right to make for a great customer experience. As Chef Ryan says, “We work to create a hotel style food experience within the walls of a hospital.” Chef Ryan and his crew are true industry innovators and I can’t wait to see what they’ll think of next!
Tessa Nguyen is a chef and registered dietitian working in the Triangle area. She is an alumna of Johnson & Wales University and Meredith College. When Tessa isn’t traveling and discovering new food spots, she teaches culinary nutrition cooking classes at Duke and works as a consultant in the health and wellness industry. You can follow her on Instagram or Twitter @