Chef Aaron Gray knows that when patrons come into his restaurant, they’re often there for really difficult reasons.
Unlike most chefs, Aaron has the challenge of serving up smiles in a place where relaxation and culinary experiences are the furthest things from a diner’s mind. He has to juggle demand for patient meals, and interestingly, being one of the most popular joints in town.
The old adage about hospital food being uninspired and bland has no application in the Garden Café, where Aaron serves up a mesmerizing rotation of unique, flavor-filled dishes that have people driving in for lunch from across town.
"We actually have a lot of people from town that come to eat at the hospital saying it's the best food in the area, which is what our goal is: not to be as good as the restaurants, but to be better. We set the bar pretty high, too.”
Chef Aaron is the winner of the Best Dessert award in The Biskies™ Awards hosted by General Mills Foodservice. His churro-inspired recipe is the epitome of the spirit of this contest: making use of on-hand ingredients to spin up something truly special.
Aaron’s winning submission was the Chocolate Berry Biscuit Bomb, a towering dessert made from thin layers of deep fried Pillsburyᵀᴹ Frozen Biscuit Dough Southern Style, covered in a cinnamon sugar sprinkle (with the tiniest kick of cayenne), layered with house-made chocolate buttercream, and topped with a generous helping of blueberry and strawberry compote.
The result was a show-stopping dessert that had a line formed out the door for helpings.
Aaron laughed as he recalled having to make 75 of these Chocolate Berry Biscuit Bombs when the new recipe was announced in the hospital.
“I mean, why did I come up with something with five layers?” he said with an exasperated laugh. “It took a team effort — I had to have an assembly line of people.”
With some chagrin, Aaron admits that the extravagance of the recipe was part of the appeal. “It would have been a lot easier to do it in two layers, but it wouldn't have been over the top, and it wouldn't have been me.”
The recipe was a hit and sold out in just over an hour.
“That first time that we offered the biscuits up, the hospital put it on the Facebook page that we would be selling them. We started at 11:00, and by 12:10, we were out of them. We sold out, and we made over 100 that day.”
Aaron says Pillsbury biscuits are a staple in his kitchen, a versatile base that many of his original recipes are built on.
“We have a chicken pot pie over a biscuit, we have the standard biscuits and gravy. We've done different biscuits with even the burger of the month. My last burger of the year, I do a breakfast burger, and we're calling it The Seattle Starbucks, a redeye gravy burger. The burger will be on a Pillsbury biscuit with a house made Starbucks redeye gravy and a fried egg.”
Aaron is an award-winning chef who has made the Garden Café at Sioux Center Health synonymous with feel-good foods. His original recipes are packed with flavor, and despite having to juggle so much, he always manages to keep the menu interesting.
But working in foodservice is hard, and the past three years really tested his conviction in his career.
Like many operators, Aaron dealt with supply chain issues, health concerns, and staffing shortages. However, Aaron also had the unique perspective of needing to prepare food for patients in the hospital during the pandemic.
“Obviously we were extra busy with less staff and had a lot of curveballs that we were not used to at all. I mean, I had never seen a biohazard bag until they started having dishes brought down to my dish room in biohazard bags. And I'm like, I have no idea how to deal with this.”
There were hard days, and many long months, but Aaron hung in there, and his recipes continued to bring joy to a place that was in particular need of it.
“We got that a lot — people thanking us, saying, ‘Hey, it sucks to be here, but at least the food is really, really good.’ It's always kind of a nice reprieve to come down and see something that you want to eat.”
Aaron and his crew have had to juggle it all, from preparing health plan-specific meals for patients, to feeding hospital staff during a global pandemic, to managing the demands of an ecstatic public that drives across town to spend their lunch hour at a hospital cafe.
He does it all with a warm smile, and an imagination that keeps his happy little corner of the hospital a bright spot in an otherwise difficult place to be.
Check out the Garden Café menu to see the creative variety that Chef Aaron Gray cooks up at Sioux Center Health!
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