Mentors kids, patients to make healthy, nutritious meals
Sit down with Andrea Piper and you’ll find yourself immersed in a conversation about food, family and community. As Parkland Health & Hospital System’s Executive Chef, Piper knows a thing or two about all three.
Chef Piper is the “face behind the food” for thousands of meals served to Parkland patients, staff and visitors. Three meals a day are prepared for inpatients whose numbers can range from 650 to 800. She also ensures that ingredients are chopped, steamed, seasoned and sautéed for staff and visitor meals available in Parkland’s cafeteria and retail store.
Although her journey to Parkland began eight years ago, her foray into food began decades before.
A native of New Orleans, Chef Piper spent nearly 20 years working for McDonald’s in her hometown. “I started out as a crew member and worked my way up to manager,” she said. “I was very proud of my career there. I worked hard and it paid off.”
Then Katrina hit.
“The location where I was working wasn’t destroyed but because there wasn’t any power and the restaurant was full of food – well, let’s just say it wasn’t good when we went to reopen,” she said, wrinkling her nose as she described the scene. “But we went in, started cleaning and doing what we needed to quickly open doors and serve the people much-needed hot food.”
Chef Piper stayed in her beloved city for nearly five more months before moving to Dallas with her daughter and mother in tow. It was then that simultaneously she enrolled in culinary school, worked full-time in a restaurant and as time and funds permitted, taught students in grades kindergarten through 12 in the Dallas Independent School District how to cook.
“I am proud to say that I had perfect attendance in culinary school, never missed a shift at work, took on extra shifts when I could and based on what grade they were in, taught a lot of kids how to cook. Sometimes it was teaching a kindergartener how to make a sandwich, but it’s something they’ll use all their lives,” she said, her ever-present smile in full view.
How did she manage to juggle all three? “It’s called planning the work and working the plan – although culinary school never seemed like work. I just loved it.”
Giving back to the community that embraced her and her family after Katrina is paramount to Chef Piper, which is why she relishes the opportunity to participate in Parkland’s outreach efforts. Most recently she partnered with staff in Parkland’s Global Diabetes Center to teach patients and family members how to make meals suitable for diabetics. “I always encourage people to use fresh ingredients – nothing from a can, if at all possible,” she said, emphasizing that every meal should be healthy, visually appealing and taste good. “I’m the type of person who ‘eats with her eyes’ so it’s very important that meals look good, too.”
On days when she’s not participating in outreach activities, Chef Piper can be found working along with her sous chefs and Parkland’s retail dietary services manager Tony Davidson planning upcoming meals and developing new items to be introduced into the cafeteria’s monthly food rotation.
“We have the flexibility to add different food to the cafeteria menu, but we’re restricted on what we can do for patient meals,” she said. “It’s extremely important they receive the right combination of nutritious items to help with their healing. That may be low-fat, high protein, sugar free, or whatever is prescribed. I look at every one of Parkland’s patients as ‘my’ patients and am dedicated to making certain they have a wholesome, nutritious, and delicious meal.”
So after ensuring that thousands of meals have been prepared each day, what is Chef Piper’s favorite meal to whip up at home?
Laughing she replied, “I have one of those meal delivery services on speed dial!”
For more information about Parkland’s services, visit www.parklandhospital.com.