NEPHI — A chef’s culinary creations have infused life into one of the most unlikely of dining hot spots: a small-town hospital.
There’s barely any signage to mark The Grill at Central Valley Medical Center. The dining room may be the size of a home living room. The food may be served on plastic plates.
It doesn’t matter to Austin Buhler, who is trained in classical French techniques, but was also exposed to global flavors, techniques and styles. He uses his imagination, talent and skill to continually redefine the concept of hospital food.
“Hospital food is good food,” Buhler smiled.
In Buhler’s kitchen, meats are often slow-cooked overnight, sauces are regularly made from scratch and desserts feature unconventional ingredients, including a hint of cayenne pepper in the Mexican chocolate tres leches cake.
Among the recent daily specials to grab the attention of a hungry hospital staff are buffalo chicken poutine, sushi and crab cakes.
“We do fresh Japanese ramen from scratch,” Buhler said of another special. “It takes us three days to get the stock finished, from the dashi. We get in the dried fish flakes and the whole thing, fresh noodles.”
The grill has even offered lobster rolls.
“We sold lobster rolls for $4 that you’d usually get in Park City for $25, $30,” Buhler said.
Buhler said the cost of the menu items — most of which might conceivably sell at a Salt Lake restaurant for $10 to $20 — are kept low by the hospital.
“I think the hospital does it because the employees need it and they want it, it keeps them more productive, keeps our staff productive and it keeps the staff happy,” Buhler said.
Buhler, who has run the kitchen for roughly five years, recently had to change the way he prepares meals following a duodenal switch surgery in February.
“My heaviest weight was 500 pounds — which was way too big, it was hard to work in the kitchen,” Buhler said. “This is my six-month mark actually, down 160 pounds, and it’s, ‘Keep going, killing it.’”
In the process, he could not sample his food the way he had in the past.
“I had to be able to learn to taste stuff and know what it needed being able to taste it one or two times,” Buhler said. “I feel it has even helped me creatively.”
The creations keep on coming to customers who pack the small dining area at lunchtime.
“I think the hospital is the best place to eat in Nephi, actually,” said Gordon Duval, a doctor who works at the hospital.
Buhler said some people have been known to go out of their way to eat at the grill, coming from as far away as Provo and Salt Lake City.
“One thing we focus on here is quality, and as you see, the food here is top-notch,” said Central Valley Medical Center chief operating officer Randy Cuff. “My favorite meal that Austin cooks is the cordon bleu. It’s out of this world.”
In addition to serving breakfast and lunch to workers, the kitchen also prepares all the food for patients who stay at the hospital.
The Grill at Central Valley Medical Center is open to the public at lunch, Monday through Friday.
Buhler said plans are in the works to significantly expand the kitchen and dining area in the next 18 months, and he “loves” it there.
“It allows me to bring a little culture to a rural part of Utah that’s usually not exposed to a lot of these things,” he said.