Canadian chef's work improving hospital food earns award nomination

Ontario chef-activist Joshna Maharaj has been chosen as a finalist in the new Basque Culinary World Prize. Toronto-based Maharaj replaced "famously terrible" hospital food with healthy meals for patients.

The Basque Culinary Prize honours chefs who 'improve society through gastronomy'

Canadian chef Joshna Maharaj serves up healthy food. Known as the "Institutional Food Lady" she changed the way meals were prepared for hospital patients in the Toronto area. (Melissa Yu)

They said it couldn't be done. They said you can't make hospital food edible. But one Canadian chef proved you can — and now she's up for a prestigious culinary award.

Toronto-based Joshna Maharaj first set her culinary sights on the Scarborough Hospital. She arrived in 2011, as the head chef, teaching the kitchen staff there how to make flavour-packed meals for patients.

"Nobody knew what we could do, but everybody knew we had to do something, because hospital food is so bad," she said. "It is so famously terrible."

So out went bland prepackaged meals. In their place, meals using fresh basic ingredients, seasonal fruits and vegetables, and meats from local producers. Maharaj was delighted with how patients responded.

'I'm getting that too, right?'

"First, disbelief when we put the first plate of fresh, bright, crunchy, scratch-made beautiful food," she says. When a patient's roommate noticed the change in meals, "He said, 'I'm getting that too, right?'"

Providing decent meals to people already in a vulnerable state — hospital patients — has brought her pure gratification, especially when she took her institutional food changes to the kitchens of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children.

Like the time she tested Ontario heritage grain buttered biscuits in the maternity ward. "Nothing made me happier than taking two warm biscuits up to a woman who had just delivered," she said.

Out with toast, in with frittatas

Maharaj thought of clever ways to improve the food delivered to patients' beds. She replaced toast with frittatas, for instance, "because no toast can survive the journey under that sweaty [serving tray] dome." A frittata can handle the steam and finish cooking en route and arrive in good shape to eat.​

It's not only the patients who are satisfied. "Re-thinking the way institutions purchase, cook and serve food is a win-win-win," she says. "It's great for the economy. It's great for our small producers. Most important, it's great for our patients, students and — dare I suggest — our prisoners."  

Canadian chef Joshna Maharaj offers some healthy treats at Luminato's Neighbourhood Food Festival in Toronto. She is a finalist in the Basque Culinary World Prize. (Kas Roussy)

That's right, the chef would like to provide healthier grub to the incarcerated. "I don't know that just because prisoners are convicted of crimes means that they should eat poorly," she says. "I don't buy that connection." She laments that funding for the healthy meal program has run out, but Maharaj says she hopes she can secure new money.

"I'm a really loud advocate for the fact that there's no reason why folks in institutions can not have great quality food."

The loud advocate became known as the "Institutional Food Lady." And it's her work with the hospitals and other institutions that has earned her a spot among the top 20 finalists in the Basque Culinary World Prize, an award honouring chefs around the world who "improve society through gastronomy," its website says.

Chefs can be 'change agents'

CBC News caught up with Maharaj this summer during the Luminato festival in Toronto, where she was curating a neighbourhood food event. She says being short-listed for the award is the "hugest, delightful honour" and it "affirms the idea that there is a role chefs can play as change agents in communities."

The Basque Culinary World Prize was launched earlier this year by the Basque Culinary Center, a Spain-based gastronomic university. Entries came from 30 countries, nominating 110 chefs.

The winner will be announced July 11. The winning chef will be awarded the equivalent of about $150,000.


Kas Roussy

Former CBC reporter

Kas Roussy was a senior reporter with the Health unit at CBC News. In her more than 30 years with CBC, Kas’s reporting took her around the globe to cover news in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan, Chile, Haiti and China, where she was the bureau producer.