Miles To Go
Chef McMath has a vision for St. Jude’s Kay Kafe, and he’s just getting started
Story and photos By Melissa Anderson Sweazy
Miles McMath really makes me want to eat beets. Sampling a golden slice from a tray he is preparing for a lunch meeting, I’m unprepared for the honey sweetness followed by the tangy, complex seasoning. I ask for another and smile, grateful for the metaphor I’m munching on. More on that in a minute. The trick to the beets, he’s telling me, is cranking up the oven to about 500°, caramelizing them to a golden brown while simultaneously irking his hospital cafeteria staff. “They always keep it on 350°,” he explains with a grin, showing me the oven knob with a white gash carved into its face. “I finally had to mark the thing so they’d know to keep it on 500°.” Well over six feet and seemingly twice that while wearing his towering chef’s toque, Miles McMath talks fast, moves fast and thinks just as quickly, qualities you’d expect from a chef responsible for the cafeteria at St. Jude hospital. But his Mississippi drawl and omnipresent smile radiate good will. Chefs may be the new rockstars, but this job starts at 4 am, and that bonhomie seems to go a long way in sustaining him throughout his hectic day.
To say the Kay Kafe is a cafeteria is like calling St. Paul’s cathedral a nice church. When Danny Thomas first envisioned St. Jude’s cafeteria in 1962, he saw a place where patients and their parents and the doctors and researchers could all eat side by side. But the cafeteria was in need of twenty-first century makeover, and here’s where that yummy beet metaphor comes in. After an extremely generous donation by Sterling Jewelers, the parent company of Kay’s Jewelers, in 2006, the cafeteria was ready for its close-up. Where it could have resulted in just a larger hospital cafeteria, the everyday beet, if you will, Miles worked to completely rehab the heart of the hospital, resulting in a fantasyland of multinational cuisine and local produce. The choices seem almost endless. In one corner is a make-your-own pizza station, catty-corner from the fresh sushi and the bakery with breads shaped like alligators. Balloons the colors of gemstones festoon the gelato station. The walls are adorned with prints of neon ice cream scoops, and the counters are lowered so the patients can directly interface with their servers. Miles points out a smoking grill top that is a wok one day, a handmade Indian dosa station the next. Celebrity chefs like recent guest Chef Martin Yan complete week-long stints at the café, working with the staff to serve up their specialties. Then we are standing in front of the Weight Watchers bar, and Miles is proud to point out that the grains are locally sourced. The house strawberries are from three local growers, and if he were to have his way, something that seems likely if he continues to throw his dinners using nothing but his delicious take on homegrown produce, even more of Kay Kafe would feature local items. But as he often reminds me, his biggest challenge is just getting the kids to eat.
“We try to sneak in healthy food when we can, but if they just want fruit rollups, they are going to eat fruit rollups.” Fruit roll-ups with killer presentation. He tells me of a recent “sushi night” where the kids were treated to rice krispie treat “rice” rolled around fresh fruit with cantaloupe “ginger” and green “wasabi” marshmallow paste. Seeing the photos, I’m beginning to understand why he was the United Produce Association’s 2008 recipient of their innovative use of fresh produce award. I ask what his toughest request has been, and noting that St. Jude sees patients from all over the world, he tells me about the patient from India who wanted a meal “just like mom makes.” Unable to let mom into the kitchen to work her magic, he worked on several varieties until coming up with a dish that satisfied his client’s palate. Tough job? He wouldn’t have any other.
Miles McMath is a Mississippi boy, raised on a farm and the Jerry Clower comedy routines he still listens to in his office. Not knowing anything but eating local, he worked his way up through cooking school to ultimately own several restaurants, the most recent Junior’s which he sold in 2005. Free of his punishing restaurant schedule, he convinced his wife, a fellow Mississippi native, to escape to New Orleans with their three young children for a year where they cooked and ate their way through the city. The time? November 2005, when most people had turned their backs on the city underwater. But he shrugged off the challenge, returning to Mississippi relaxed and recharged to take on a job of a lifetime. Not only would he be drawing up the menus and cultivating relationships with the hospital staff and the suppliers, he had an entire restaurant to recreate from scratch. Dream job, he insists. The hospital has only 50 beds, but nearly 1400 outpatients come through each week. Then there is the staff, the freelancers, families, lunch meetings, and it becomes apparent that lunch hour could mean 1000 people passing through Kay Kafe.
But he only wants to do more. He shows me the outdoor herb garden next to the dining room patio, and he mentions that he would love to have a rooftop garden—on top of the parking garage. He’d also love to offer a CSA program where subscribers could pick up their boxes of fresh produce each week. He keeps what he calls the “crazy idea file” in his office, a giant pad where he scribbles down inspiration whenever it strikes him. Fortunately for the patrons of Kay Kafe, I see a lot of scribbling. eM
Melissa Anderson Sweazy keeps her own crazy idea file at bebedreamblog.blogspot.com