On a recent Friday, people are lined up like they would be at a famous Texas barbecue joint, waiting with bated breath and hoping the food doesn’t run out before they have a chance to try it. On offer? A spread of colorful Caribbean staples—caramelized plantains with crispy edges, spicy black beans, juicy Cuban pork, chicken in a marinade that makes your eyes water with heat and tang, lime cilantro rice, and fresh mango salsa.
A lunch plate so full it’ll spoil your dinner costs a mere $5 because Café 8901 charges 35 cents per ounce for its weighed food. No one is looking to turn a profit—the restaurant is really a cafeteria inside Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Located in Bethesda, WRNMMC is America’s largest military medical campus, predominantly serving active duty service members and their families.
Café 8901 only dishes out Caribbean food on Fridays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Some employees come in on their day off just for lunch, while others tightly pack takeout containers so their families can also try the tropical cuisine. All share a paranoia that fellow diners will drain the deep metal pans before lunch ends. There’s no such turnout for other specialty days—not even Taco Tuesday.
I had to meet the chef who’s turning something mass-produced into something magical. Waiting in a back office inside the cafeteria’s sprawling kitchen, where the clash and bang of cauldron-sized pots and pans are the soundtrack, I expect to meet a Trinidadian woman or maybe a Dominican man.
Instead Ted Stolk, a towering Dutchman in a chef’s coat, greets me. He’s the senior food service supervisor at the hospital, and Caribbean Day was his idea. The church-going family man with a gentle soul and obsession with from-scratch cooking has worked in restaurants since he was 15. “I was a waiter, and after two years my boss pulled me into the kitchen and I never left,” he says.
Stolk spent much of his career with Marriott and came to the U.S. with the company in 1989 after more than six years in Amsterdam. He remained with the hotel until 1998 and briefly worked for Adam’s Mark Hotels & Resorts. In January 2001 he accepted a position as the chef of the National Gallery of Art but lost the contract the same year and joined the staff at the original Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District as a contractor in October 2001.
“The [Iraq] war was just starting, and they had some deployment money they wanted to spend,” he says. “They wanted to teach cooks how to cook food that wasn’t government-style cooking. … If we have soldiers and sailors that are going out and putting their lives on the line for us, the least we can do is provide them with a meal when they come home missing arms and legs.”
Stolk became an American citizen and federal employee in 2004 and worked at Walter Reed Army Medical Center until 2011, when the hospital ceased operations and merged with the National Naval Medical Center to form WRNMMC. From March 2013 through July 2013, Stolk ran his operation out of trailers while the hospital fully remodeled its cafeteria and kitchen.
The 60-year-old clocks in at 4:45 a.m. Mondays through Fridays to lead a massive operation that demands 150 employees to feed 4,000 people a day across breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The same kitchen is responsible for another 300 to 400 daily meals for patients. Chasing after everything and everyone, Stolk says he walks 18,000 steps a day.
In addition to the rotating “international bar,” Café 8901 has a “fit and flavorful” station serving low-fat, low-sodium dishes of 550 calories or less; a main line with two entrees and accompanying starches and vegetables; a pizza station; a deli station; a salad bar; and various other options.
Stolk and his team make almost everything from scratch, from the pizza dough and pizza sauce to the hummus, and they only work with fresh fruits and vegetables. “I have seven people that are only doing produce all day,” Stolk says. They have a designated prep room off the main cooking area where they chop and peel.
When he debuted Caribbean Day, Stolk had no idea it would have such cosmic pull. “They line up and I can’t put my finger on why,” he says. “Caribbean food is simple food but they’re lining up.”
Even though Caribbean Day takes place on Fridays, cooks start marinating the pork on Wednesdays. On Thursdays, they cook it low and slow until the meat falls apart. They use pork loin instead of pork shoulder to cut down on fat content, yet it remains moist.
Navy corpsman HM3 Kevin Tamayo works at nearby Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences but comes to Walter Reed to eat on Caribbean Day. “It’s yummy and spicy,” he says. “Around here is expensive and this food is inexpensive, so if I have a day off I come in here and eat up and get on with my day.”
Dental assistant Samantha Head and pediatric nurse practitioner Naomi Osborne only eat at Café 8901 when Caribbean food is served. “The way it’s cooked, the flavoring of it—I can mix it all together and it’s a good meal,” Osborne says. “I always come no later than noon because there are times they run out.” Head adds, “It has that spicy kick to it and it’s well-seasoned. This is the hottest thing on Fridays. I always take some home to my family. Fridays I’m not cooking.”
Stolk is quick to flash his recipes that call for a gargantuan amount of ingredients such as 80 pounds of chicken tenders and 25 cloves of garlic. “There are no secrets here,” he says, noting that he draws inspiration from cookbooks and online recipes to ensure he’s on trend. “We’re not stuck in the ’80s or ’90s anymore with food,” he says. “For an operation like this, I think that is a pretty big accomplishment because we came a long way.”
But Stolk’s greatest source of pride is the meals his team delivers directly to patients. “It’s something I started with my background at Marriott,” he says. “We call it room service. It’s like a five-star hotel.” Patients dial the kitchen from their rooms, placing an order off a menu tailored to their dietary needs. Every dish is made to order, just like at a restaurant, and sent to the patient’s room within 45 minutes.
“It started as something nobody wanted to touch in the armed forces, so we had to get our own funding,” Stolk says. He kicked off room service 15 years ago at the original Walter Reed. “When we did it, we brought in the chief dietician of the Army and showed him what we were doing,” he says. “And now it’s standard.”
Dietary considerations and food safety are paramount at hospital dining facilities. “When the [Iraq] war started and we had all the amputees here, that was my passion, my mission,” Stolk recalls. Now that there are fewer troops overseas, Stolk says the focus of the hospital is going toward cancer treatment and cancer research.
“Every month we get inspected by the Army and Navy,” Stolk says. “They spend five hours in my kitchen checking everything out. We’re in the highest risk category in the hospital because of compromised immune systems. We do cancer treatments, so we don’t take any chances. Every day one of the first things I do is check my email to see if there are any recalls.”
Next on Stolk’s wishlist is a teaching kitchen. If he can find funding for his passion project, he aspires to develop a hospital program where doctors, nurses, and nutrition services collaborate to help staff and patients learn about healthy cooking.
So far dreaming big has worked for Stolk. Bringing the patient room service program to fruition and having it become standard at all military medical centers is a good example of how he’ll continue to disrupt what is traditionally thought of as hospital glop and military grub. “We still have a stigma,” Stolk says, noting that the Army refers to many of its dining facilities as “chow halls.”
“When I came to Walter Reed 18 years ago, it was a lot of heat-and-stir foods,” Stolk says. “We’ve come a long way. The Army and the Navy both realized years and years ago that we had to curb that and try to beat that stigma because it’s not healthy when you do everything pre-made and heat and serve.” He worries about preservatives and sodium levels.
“If you feed your soldiers and sailors that kind of food, how ready are they going to be? You have to teach them to be healthy and stay fit.”
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