When Brandon Smith drives down the road, he is always on the lookout for his next meal. He isn’t looking for the next great restaurant, he pays more attention to the fields as he watches for local ingredients to use in his cooking.
Smith is the executive chef at Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma and he has brought the local ingredients he has found through farmer’s markets, local contacts and even sometimes the occasional sighting on the side of the road into his kitchen. Whether it be kohlrabi and carrots from Juel’s Unique Nursery, chickens from G&H Pastured Poultry in McCleary or onions and potatoes from Eastern Washington, Smith uses whatever local flavors he can find to bring nutrition to patients, coworkers and, now, the public.
“I just like to feature this produce that people can get right up the road here,” Smith said. “The thing we are trying to do here is encourage people to buy local, not only to boost the local economy, but it is better for you. The stuff that you get from the global food market, they pick when it is not quite ripe so the nutrients aren’t all there yet. If you can get local stuff that is grown to its full maturity it is better for you. In the long run, you are healthier.”
Smith and Summit Pacific believe so strongly in the benefits of the local products that on Aug. 1 they will take the next step toward healthier food by signing the Healthy Food in Healthcare Pledge as part of Healthcare Without Harm’s Healthy Food in Healthcare program. The pledge encourages participating organizations to commit to nutrition practices that do no harm and treat food and its production and distribution as preventive medicine by committing to support the procurement of local, nutritious, sustainably produced food. Summit Pacific can fulfill the pledge by taking steps such as buying more local produce, antibiotic free and grass fed meats, buying organic and providing nutrition education opportunities.
CEO Renée Jensen says Summit Pacific will be the smallest hospital willing to take the pledge.
The community has the chance to taste some of Smith’s dishes during lunchtime Monday through Friday as the Summit Pacific dining facility is open to the public, but Summit Pacific will be holding a barbecue on Aug. 1 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. to give the community another taste of the kind of cuisine that can come from the local products.
The barbecue will feature chickens that were raised at G&H Pastured Poultry in McCleary. The cost will be $5 per person, but Smith said the food will be well worth every penny.
Smith said he has wanted to takes the steps encouraged by the pledge since before Summit Pacific was opened. It is not just about taking soda and deep-fried foods off the menu, he has dreams of only serving locally grown, grass fed beef and antibiotic free chicken, exposing individuals to new types of foods and even having a garden on site one day.
Smith’s love for cooking began at a very early age.
“My mom taught me how to make toast and eggs when I was 2 years old because she didn’t want to get up in the morning,” Smith said. “In grade school, I worked in the cafeteria so I would get a free lunch.”
In addition to his work in the kitchen, Smith got some experience learning where his food came from at an early age when he raised pigs and chickens as part of the 4-H organization. Now, he gets the chance to blend the skills he learned in his youth. But, back in 1986, when he first started in the healthcare food industry in California as a dishwasher, what he would go on to accomplish at Summit Pacific seemed like just a dream. He worked his way up the ladder from dishwasher to steward, doing most of the ordering, before earning an associate’s degree in finance and becoming the production manager. Later, he did an internship with a chef so he could take the title of chef.
“Most of my career, I was the suit wearing guy,” Smith said. “I did the administrative for the dietary facilities and I worked for big facilities, like 700 to 800 beds.”
Today, he and his wife, Kathie, live in Montesano. He has three children. His family began looking for a quieter life and thought about buying a bed and breakfast. But he didn’t think the couple could make enough money to support themselves at first, so he looked around for other employment and found an opportunity at the East County hospital district.
“It is not as much about making more money here as it is about encouraging people to eat healthy and be a healthcare institution and model the correct behavior,” Smith said.
Instead of being required to buy produce and ingredients from certain vendors because the corporation he is working for has a contract with a company, Smith now finds inspiration in being able to pick where his ingredients come from. Sometimes, his inspiration comes without having to leave the Summit Pacific property. Last year, he harvested some apples from a wild apple tree on the property. The finished product may have been “gross,” as Smith said, but some other produce has produced very different results such as when he decided to pick some blueberries on the Summit Pacific property to use in his desserts. Smith also enjoys experimenting with recipes to give patrons a taste of different cultures along with local ingredients. One day last week, Smith served beef flank steak with Argentine chimichurri sauce along with roasted fingerling potatoes, carrots, shallots and kohlrabi and a French carrot soup called potage crecy.
“When I first made this soup everyone was afraid of it because it looked like baby food, but this is one of the most popular soups I do now,” Smith said. “My mission is to make things that people haven’t tried before. I make Thai, Vietnamiese, Hawaiian, French, Argentine. I make it so people can try things cheap and decide if they like it or not.”
Even Smith’s assistant, Trisha Werdahl, said she is never quite sure what will be on the menu from one day to the next, but it is as much a learning experience for her as it is the public.
“It is wonderful,” Werdahl said. “Now, I will go home and say, ‘I’m going to make this tonight,’ and my family will say ‘What?’ I learn unique ways to cook the vegetables I have.”
A relatively quiet dining area with patrons who were too busy eating to talk is enough feedback for Smith to know he is making the right decision with the local ingredients. The future may hold more unique recipes, farmer’s markets on the Summit Pacific property and even a garden at the medical center. For now, Smith is happy to be making delicious dinners.
“It is like my art,” Smith said. “I get to do what I love. I spent a lot of years frustrated because I wasn’t doing what I liked. This has always been my passion to make good food.”