ST. LOUIS — Certain places have reputations for serving bad food. Places where you're stuck with few options under cramped conditions. Airplanes. Jails. And, of course, hospitals.
Robert Grotha, executive chef at St. Louis Children's Hospital, doesn't think that way about hospital food. To him, the job is an opportunity to surprise patients, families and staff who expect not much more than chocolate pudding and soggy pizza.
"This is a healing environment. The food we make and prepare is medicine," said Grotha, 27. "You can't serve bland, unseasoned food you gotta drink through a straw."
Grotha, a Kirkwood native, said he learned to make meals for the family when his mom worked 12-hour days as a nurse. He'd experiment with leftovers and whatever was in the pantry. Now he takes that curiosity to the farmers market where he hunts for rare mushrooms and other exotic ingredients.
When his brother traveled to India, Grotha talked him into bringing spices back in his luggage. The chef recently ordered Thai bird beak chili peppers to serve in the hospital cafeteria, and a co-worker joked that the peppers' heat was causing respiratory distress.
Grotha studied hotel and restaurant management at MU and attended culinary school in North Carolina. He was trained at fine dining restaurants in St. Louis, Columbia and along the East Coast, always thinking he'd own his own restaurant someday.
Then a job recruiter talked to him about working in health care. He wouldn't have to work every Saturday night and Sunday brunch, not to mention all the holidays. He started at Children's nearly three years ago.
Grotha knows he's not only helping to nourish sick children, he's fueling the work of brain surgeons and pediatric nurses: "You're part of the process that saves lives," he said. "When you make a friend like that or make somebody's day with a special meal, it doesn't feel like work."
Chef Rob, as they call him, encourages the kids to play with their food. He threads dry spaghetti with hot dog slices and boils the ingredients together to create a woven masterpiece. The pancakes are shaped like a moose, with grapes for eyes. Once he laid out a red and white checked tablecloth for an impromptu picnic with a child on the hospital room floor.
One of Grotha's favorite challenges is mimicking a child's favorite meal. It might be the rigatoni alla carbonara from the Pasta House, or Grandma's secret recipe chicken and dumplings. He promises the child he'll make the dish as good or better than they remember, or he'll bring in the original. Only once has he lost that bet, when he had to run out for General Tso's chicken at a Chinese restaurant.
Grotha oversees all kinds of special diets and allergy restrictions, from pureed foods to gluten-free, high-fat, low-fat and in between. Because Children's attracts patients from around the world, Grotha researches different cultures so he can serve kids the traditional cuisine from home.
Tyler West was born with a condition that requires a low-protein diet. When he was 2, he developed an unrelated brain tumor and stayed in the hospital for 10 weeks. His mom, Amy West, was increasingly frustrated by the high-protein meals that were sent to the room.
Chef Grotha came to visit and vowed personally to oversee all of Tyler's meals. He went shopping and found a biscuit dough, an Alfredo sauce and a fat-free cheese with the right amount of protein to create the pizza now known around the hospital as the "Tyler West signature pizza."
"He would always come up singing 'Be Our Guest','" Amy West said. "Everybody on the 12th floor fell in love with Chef too."
When Amy and her husband, Justin, celebrated their eighth anniversary in the hospital, Grotha cordoned off the hospital's private dining room, played romantic music and served a five-course tasting meal complete with steak, lobster and non-alcoholic wine served in glasses he brought from home. When Tyler, now 4, has follow-up visits at the hospital, Chef Rob still makes his lunch.
It's hard at times to get any kid to eat, but if they're sick, it's critical. Some medicines have to be taken with food. Therapy doesn't work as well if the child lacks energy. When sick children resist food, Grotha sits down with them for a private chat. What is their favorite restaurant? What do they like to eat on their birthday? Have they ever watched a cooking show?
"I challenge myself to get them excited," Grotha said. "If you make it exciting and engaging, it's easier to eat."
When Janet Pruneau was in the hospital last year awaiting surgery for a brain tumor, she had mouth sores and nausea and hadn't eaten anything in days. Her weight was dropping and doctors said she would need a feeding tube. The one thing that sounded good was sushi, and Chef Rob came through.
Grotha continued to keep Janet's weight up through her treatments, starting with the most inviting, elaborate and high-calorie dessert a child could dream up. First he dipped half a balloon in melted chocolate. When it dried, he popped the balloon to create a giant chocolate bowl, which he filled with chocolate mousse topped with sliced strawberries and a chocolate drizzle.
He's also been known to infuse Janet's macaroni and cheese with ranch dressing. And Grotha always prepares chicken fingers exactly the way the 5-year-old likes: cooled slightly, sliced thinly and flared out on the plate.
"His sole job is not to find the one food a kid will eat, but he does it every time," said Laura Pruneau, Janet's mom. "My kid is fighting for her life, and that's one thing I don't have to worry about. It did me a lot of good to see her get excited about food again."
Megan McKinney, 17, of Swansea, was recently hospitalized and having trouble keeping food down. For Megan's first meal in recovery, Grotha whipped up her favorites — barbecued ribs, cornbread, green beans with onions and baked beans with bacon.
Megan's dad, Douglas McKinney, jokingly told her, "you had to go to the hospital to have the best ribs you've eaten."
Grotha's boss, Gary LaBlance, vice president at Children's, said he appreciates the chef's range. He can go from hot dogs to upscale dinner meetings for board members in the same day. LaBlance said in his 30 years in health care, it's very rare to see a chef develop such close bonds with patients.
"He's pretty phenomenal," LaBlance said. "He's so engaging and so passionate."
It's not just the patients Grotha engages. He conducts a high-energy meeting with his staff every morning with cheers and songs and encouragement, reminding them of the joy of their job: "You don't have to give shots. You don't have to pull bandages off. You get to serve people food."
Grotha sometimes misses the world of fine dining, especially when his former culinary school classmates tell him about the 18-course menus they're planning. But then he tells himself they aren't getting hugs, kisses and handmade thank-you cards from their diners.
"I never would have believed it, but now I would not do anything else," Grotha said.