You don’t have to be a patient to partake of UNC REX Healthcare’s fresh Mediterranean-inspired café.

by Alex Dixon

A classically trained team of chefs is putting heart into the food served at the restaurant located in UNC REX Healthcare’s North Carolina Heart and Vascular Hospital.

Ryan Conklin, executive chef at UNC REX

Ryan Conklin, executive chef at UNC REX

Kardia Café—named after the Greek word for heart—has been serving fresh Mediterranean-inspired food to patients, their families, and hospital staff for the past year. Café staff chose a Mediterranean concept because of the cuisine’s emphasis on heart-healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, seeds, nuts, and whole grains. There aren’t many restaurants inside hospitals across the nation, so Kardia is a novel approach, says Chef James Castellow, one of Kardia’s founding team members and the former executive chef of North Raleigh’s Zest Cafe & Home Art. “The whole department pioneered this, and the hospital was behind that happening,” he says.

Kardia is one of the newer efforts UNC REX has made toward keeping patients healthier in all aspects of life. In 2012, UNC REX removed its fryers, and the chefs there have always focused on healthy food. But the addition of Kardia in 2017 gave the team the opportunity to take this food to the next level, with items like a bright and tangy take on chicken salad with capers, dried cranberries, and golden raisins, and customizable grain bowls. Rather than serving soft drinks, the café creates naturally sweetened beverages that change daily depending on seasonality, such as Lavender Honey Black Tea, or their staple Kardia Kolada, made with coconut and pineapple juice.

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Kardia’s founding team includes UNC REX’s director of food and nutrition, Jim McGrody, and its executive chef, Ryan Conklin, along with a total of seven classically trained chefs who have attended culinary school. For Chef Castellow, Kardia was a natural extension of his culinary vision at Zest Cafe, which has served healthy food for 20 years and doesn’t have fryers or serve sweet tea, which Castellow says is more acceptable in North Carolina now but wasn’t the norm when Zest opened.

The chefs at Kardia are cognizant of the reputation—and sometimes the jokes—that often accompany hospital food, but with each dish they serve out of their café, they’re changing that status quo perception. “Places like this are a great opportunity to showcase the world-class culinary talent that we have now in healthcare,” Conklin says. “No more just plopping mashed potatoes on the plate ... hospital food has evolved.” Everything at Kardia is house-made, from the burger made with a mixture of lamb and beef to the dressing on the Kardia house salad. Even the restaurant’s wooden tables are made from the willow oaks that were cleared for construction of the hospital.


“A lot of hospitals may have one chef; we have seven classically trained chefs, and they’ve all been to culinary school,” Castellow says. “There’s a lot of firepower in our department. Some of the ingredients in our spice cabinet, like sumac, I think other hospitals would definitely be intimidated by them.” Kardia’s chefs even hold their own against fine-dining chefs, as Chef Conklin and the team of UNC REX chefs beat dozens of other culinary teams in the “Got to Be NC” dining competition in 2015.

The team at Kardia focuses not only on serving healthy food, but also on educating their diners on what they’re eating and providing tips on how to eat more healthily at home. “It took a lot of talking to customers and explaining to them what we were,” Castellow says. “When we first opened, our menu was quite ethnic in its descriptions, and we had to tone it down to make sense to the demographic we were trying to target—patients and their families who may not have been exposed to food like this. For instance, baba ganoush became eggplant spread, and things like that.”

Patients, family members, hospital staff, and community members can also take part in educational healthy cooking classes led by Kardia’s team in a 100-seat demonstration kitchen. The chefs at Kardia have seen increased interest from their hospital coworkers in both the cooking demonstrations and the café itself. The restaurant even draws in diners from the community who aren’t connected to the hospital.

But perhaps the most special component about a job at Kardia is the impact it has on patients and their families. “As a chef in the restaurant and hotel industry, you always concentrate on preparing food that makes people feel good,” Conklin says. “As a chef in healthcare, you can really do so much more than that. You can prepare food that can nourish people who are sick, you can teach patients and even coworkers about eating better, and you have the opportunity to create memories. Our team is very proud of the work we do because we know we are making a difference.”

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