Louise Chidlow, Braemar head chef, goes out of her way to ensure every taste is catered for…
Shortly before she took up her role as head chef at Braemar Hospital, Louise Chidlow was plating 500-600 meals a weekend for discerning patrons at a popular Hamilton pub and restaurant.
The bubbly young woman says the contrast between pub culture and private hospital care couldn’t be greater. But, interestingly, the food is not dissimilar.
“When I was appointed (to my role at Braemar) I was determined to bring the same variety and quality of food that I had prepared throughout my career,” she says. “That means the food must taste good and look good. Patients are just as discerning as customers in top class restaurants. They deserve the same standards.”
So, on any typical day, Braemar patients will be offered a selection that includes fresh fruit salad, pancakes and maple syrup for breakfast, a lamb backstrap, cashew and rocket salad for lunch and stuffed roast capsicum with meat or fish for dinner. Pesto and aioli are made from scratch. As well, there is a selection of home baked biscuits, slices and muffins for morning and afternoon tea.
Catering for a range of different tastes is imperative. The kitchen prepares food for patients and staff at Braemar, including surgeons who often work long hours. Louise takes pride in getting to know their preferences. “One patient is a tetraplegic who has spent a bit of time here. I always check with him what he’d like for dinner. Another young man is partial to a particular slice, so we make sure he gets it. One 12-year-old girl was a bit sad so I made her paninis and toasted sandwiches, which she liked. We also made one patient a 21st birthday cake.”
She has also rearranged the menus across a 10-day rotation so surgeons who work the same days each week, get a variety of options.
Louise, 37, a self-confessed “passionate foodie”, says she has known since she was a child that she wanted to be a chef. “I remember watching my grandmother cook and the pleasure of seeing meals prepared from scratch with fresh ingredients.”
She completed her qualifications at Wintec and worked at Montana Restaurant, under owner Peter Stark, for around six years. “This was in the 1990s when shrimp cocktails and filet mignon were the preferred dishes of the day. Our fancy dish was asparagus and cheese in white sauce.” She credits Stark with teaching her the principles of good food preparation and attention to detail. She also says he was very calm under pressure, unlike some of today’s television celebrity chefs. It is a quality she has brought to the kitchen at Braemar, where she works with another fulltime chef, Queenie (“an amazing baking machine”) and a part-time chef, Tracey.
After a stint in the Loaded Hog kitchen, where she learned good business practice from owner Tim Smith, she moved to Australia working in a small restaurant in the backblocks of Queensland. “It was just a service station and us.” The café catered for tourists and locals, and specialties included paddle crabs, Balmain Bugs, Nile Perch and other seafood. “My favourite was chicken breasts with Morton Bay bugs.” She has also worked at a Melbourne bistro and loved the cosmopolitan range of food in that city, especially in the markets.
When she returned to New Zealand, she worked for a short time in a rest home kitchen – “let’s just say there wasn’t a lot of room for extension there,” – before taking up the position as head chef at the Cock and Bull bar and restaurant at Te Rapa, Hamilton. “It was a huge job in terms of organisation. We were running a line of up to 500 meals on Friday and Saturdays. Portion sizes were controlled to within 5 grams. There was no room for error. She says the pub’s clients were discerning and the hours long. “The most I worked in one week was 85 but it was generally around 60.” But it taught her how to build a good team and get the best from them.
When the opportunity arose four years ago to work at Braemar she didn’t hesitate. “I came with the intention to introduce new dishes that looked as good as they tasted. I wanted to move away from the traditional perception of ‘hospital food’. People eat with their eyes so even if they can only manage a couple of spoonfuls of a dish –or are on a restricted diet – the food must look and taste appetising.”
The key to good food, she says, is simple: fresh ingredients, good preparation and attention to detail. “So, even if a dish is mashed potato, it must look attractive.”
Her own tastes in food are eclectic, and she loves experimenting. When she cooks for herself and friends, she particularly likes the richness and flavour of Italian food (“mushroom and blue cheese risotto is my all-time favourite”), Thai dishes, eye filet and garlic, and “lots of cracked pepper and chilli sauce.” Her vegetable garden has “heaps of herbs, especially coriander.”
She particularly admires English chef, restaurateur and television presenter Rick Stein and New Zealanders Steve Logan and Al Brown, presenters of the Hunger for the Wild television series, whose philosophy and food tastes match her own.
She says at Braemar, the new state-of-the art kitchen enables her team to create quality dishes and to be versatile. She gets pleasure from catering for people who are recovering from illness or injury and believes good food can calm and relax them when they are stressed.
Children particularly respond to food treats, especially two of the menu staples, Braemar Burgers and Hospital Hotdogs.
“This is more of a passion than a job. I love it when patients compliment us on our food. Some even ask for recipes. “
Surgeons are also partial to certain specialties. “A surgeon, who operates on Tuesdays, particularly likes the ginger crunch biscuits. He has been known to have 12 at one sitting.”