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Hospital chef sets out to build a business from scratch

When Justin Johnson was hired in 2012 to help revamp the Watertown hospital cafeteria to emphasize scratch food and sustainable operations, he was skeptical whether the concept would work.

Now, Johnson is starting his own company, which aims to do the same thing: use less processed food and increase revenue.

"I discovered it was a lot easier than I thought," he said. "A lot of times, the roadblocks were imagined or easy to overcome. There's a lot you can do for a little."

Johnson's work can include changing menus and recipes, overhauling kitchen systems to be more efficient, training staff — even installing garden space for businesses to make their own produce. His start-up, called Sustainable Kitchens, will specialize in helping health care kitchens.

It also underscores a wider trend in the food industry for healthier, more natural meals.

Gretchen Mead, executive director of the Victory Garden Initiative and a member of the Milwaukee Food Council, said she's seen a growing interest among food services in the area to use food from scratch, with a handful of commercial kitchens grabbing produce from their backyards and at farmers markets.

"People are realizing it's the way of the future," Mead said. "They are seeing how foods are affecting their health. There's almost a sense of conspiracy, like 'What did they put in my food?'"

Mead's seen sustainable food managing programs come and go over the past couple of years, but as a consultative business, Sustainable Kitchens is a relatively new idea.

It's also a concept that could be attractive for businesses that want to revamp their food services but without the financial resources needed to hire top-line chefs.

Even though Johnson only started moving on the idea in December, he already has begun working with a few undisclosed restaurants in metro Milwaukee.

"I started getting enough calls and I thought, 'I might have something here,'" Johnson said.

Johnson will resign Feb. 6 as executive chef and food service director at Watertown Regional Medical Center's Harvest Market restaurant to focus on his new company, hoping to capitalize on the success he's had at the hospital.

During his time there, he retrained the staff, moved to an all-scratch-food cooking model and created an 11,000-square-foot garden that supports most of the kitchen's vegetable needs during the growing seasons.

The approach not only cut costs for the hospital, he said, but also integrated the staff into the earlier steps of preparing food and invested them more in the end result.

Johnson already has two restaurants and a health center as clients to implement similar strategies in the coming months.

"I'm coming in with a fresh set of eyes," he said. "The real focus of my company is to elevate businesses."

Before serving at the Watertown cafeteria, called Harvest Market, Johnson worked as executive chef at Hotel Metro Milwaukee and at Harwood Place Retirement Community.

His efforts to improve sustainability in kitchens have received national attention. In 2013, Johnson was nominated by the National Restaurant Association for its Operator Innovations in Sustainability Award.

Also that year, he was among 15 chefs selected across the country for the Culinary Institute of America's enrichment and innovation program.

Robert Gebelhoff
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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