Executive Chef Jake Warneke Leads the ‘Revolution’ in the Methodist Fremont Health CafePublished: April 28, 2023
In his more than 20 years working in kitchens, Methodist Fremont Health executive chef Jake Warneke has learned a thing or two.
Among them: “Food really brings people together. Family. Friends. It just comes up in conversation all the time. Food is everywhere, and it makes people happy.”
Over the years, Warneke has prepared food for steak houses, catering companies, country clubs and an orthopedic hospital. Different settings have presented new challenges, but he’s always been motivated by the chance to serve quality meals.
“When you have a dining room of 100 people and you can please 99 of them, you win,” he said. “When you create a great dish and get a compliment, that’s what’s rewarding for me.”
Raising the Bar
Warneke got his introduction to cooking at a steakhouse in Tilden, Nebraska. He knew he wanted to be a chef, so he moved to Omaha for more opportunities. Over the next decade, he honed his skills with fine dining in catering and country club settings. As he worked his way up to sous chef, he found himself working six nights a week.
“That’s kind of a young man’s game,” said Warneke, who has two teenage children.
Drawn by more traditional hours and better benefits, he took his first executive chef job with Sodexo, cooking for the then-Nebraska Orthopaedic Hospital. About five years ago, he joined the staff at Methodist Fremont Health and immediately saw opportunity.
Menus for hospital patients and residents at Dunklau Gardens, are more or less set, Warneke said. The food service staff members who prepare those meals aim for options that are broadly popular while meeting dietary needs. Chefs in the hospital’s cafe have much more flexibility, Warneke said, but they weren’t taking advantage of it.
“The first thing that came to my mind is I wanted to deinstitutionalize that cafeteria,” he said. “I wanted to bring the food that I learned how to cook – bringing more of that country-club style food into a hospital cafeteria setting. Even though I started working in a hospital, I kept that fine dining and finesse with me. I think bringing that to the hospital raises the bar a little bit.”
Meals for Every Need and Taste
The task of feeding patients, visitors and staff at Methodist Fremont Health begins with a partnership with Sodexo, which has hundreds of menus and thousands of recipes available. It’s a great starting point for diverse meal options, Warneke said. He’s quick to tweak recipes where he can, though, giving dishes his own touch while still staying within nutritional and allergen guidelines, when necessary.
“We also take a lot of pride in making sure that our customers are safe as far as allergens go,” he said. “I might tweak a recipe, but I’ll make sure it’s allergy safe.”
His favorite dish and style of cooking? Those are hard questions to answer.
“I have so many favorites,” he said before rattling off French, Cajun, Italian and fusion styles.
“I also really love doing roasted meals, pork loin and prime rib. I like to mess around and make my own demi-glaces from scratch.”
After a little more thought, he narrowed down chicken piccata as his favorite dish to prepare. It’s a recipe with special meaning for him, inspired by the signature dishes of three other chefs he worked with.
“I took what I liked from each of theirs and made it my own,” he said.
“He Makes It His Own”
Warneke’s chicken piccata is a hit with customers, too. So are the chicken marsala, sweet and sour meatballs, sweet and sour chicken, and buttermilk/Korean fried chicken. It’s not unusual for those menu items to sell out, he said.
“Out here in Fremont, Nebraska, it’s really kind of steak and potato country,” he said. “But we do have quite a few adventurous eaters.”
Among them is Keith Weinhold, MPT, PT, director of rehabilitation services at the hospital. Since Warneke’s arrival, Weinhold has seen an evolution in the Methodist Fremont Health cafe.
“I think cafeteria food gets a stigma, and I really feel like that stigma isn’t here because it feels like you’re getting restaurant-quality food,” he said. “I see more food with flavor. He’s gone down the path of bringing some Indian food in, a little bit more exciting barbecue and all kinds of different seasoning than what you typically see. He makes it his own.”
Weinhold’s favorite dish is Warneke’s orange shrimp, with chicken tikka masala not far behind.
Whatever’s on the menu, Weinhold is likely to try it.
“He definitely cares about what he’s doing,” he said. “I ask him about what’s good today, and he’s going to tell me and go into detail about what went into making that particular dish. You can just tell he’s a true chef.”
He added: “I just appreciate Jake and the food service department in general for their willingness to be creative and open up to different palates. It’s nice to see so many options available to us, both healthy and exciting. And with the dynamic of the Fremont community not having a ton of eclectic or diverse restaurants, he brings a touch of other things that maybe you don’t get within the community. I think that’s pretty cool.”
While the approach isn’t new to the industry, Warneke is glad he can play a part in bringing it to Methodist Fremont Health.
“I think this is kind of a revolution,” he said. “This is something we’re starting to see more and more. Hospitals are focusing more on giving back to the hospital guests and the hospital staff, and they’re really stepping up. I take a lot of pride in that.”
Photos and video by Daniel Johnson and Nick Bohan
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