Chef d'cancer patients: Jack Shoop lovingly crafts a medical center's meals

Shoop works with oncologists, naturopathic doctors, nutritionists, mind-body specialists and therapists.

JACK SHOOP has owned several top-rated restaurants and is one of just 61 chefs in the United States who've been certified as master chefs by the American Culinary Federation. When the opportunity for a major career change arose, however, Shoop let his mom be his guide.

Less than two years ago, Shoop, a Harley-riding Kensington native, traded in his Florida restaurant gigs to become the executive chef for Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Eastern Regional Medical Center in Northeast Philadelphia. Shoop stresses the clinical and spiritual importance of food in the meals he prepares daily for about 800 cancer patients, their families and CTCA employees.

Shoop's decision to make such a significant career switch was due in large part to his mother's passing. "Even though my mother didn't die of cancer, I just felt like she was telling me to do it," Shoop recalled recently.

Hurricane Katrina played a part, too.

In 2005, the hurricane hit Shoop's restaurant in Destin, Fla. - the fourth such storm to strike the business. At the same time, his father passed away. The coinciding events prompted Shoop to return to Philadelphia to help his newly widowed mother.

She died unexpectedly a few months later.

Upon returning to Philadelphia, Shoop began working at Viking Cooking School in Bryn Mawr. That led to him doing a cooking demonstration for CTCA leaders as a part of a team-building workshop they attended. CEO John McNeil approached Shoop after the event and asked him to join CTCA.

Working in a hospital, he sometimes finds himself thinking of his mother's passing, and it's brought him to tears. "I never cried in my restaurant. Here I've cried about a thousand times," he said. But the opportunity to make a positive difference in the world outweighs any emotional strain from his job.

Shoop sees his work as a way to "redirect passion for the culinary arts to better the lives of cancer patients and their caregivers."

Certainly the job brings special challenges. The National Cancer Institute estimates that 40 percent of cancer-related deaths are due to malnutrition. Cancer and its treatments can affect a patient's ability to taste and smell and lead to nausea, trouble absorbing nutrients, anorexia and fatigue.

At Eastern Regional Medical Center, Shoop and a team of oncologists, naturopathic doctors, nutritionists, mind-body specialists and therapists use a whole-person approach to ensure optimal nutrition for their patients. This approach is based on the idea that cancer does not affect one part of the body but rather the body as a whole - as well as all aspects of patients' lives.

CTCA's philosophy of all-inclusive care centralized under one roof is the result of another man's love for his mother: Founder Richard J. Stephenson started CTCA in Illinois after seeing the unsatisfactory care his own mother received when she battled cancer. CTCA also has facilities in Illinois, Oklahoma, Arizona and Washington state.

The objectives of what CTCA calls its "Mother Standard of Care" are to make a difference in the lives of cancer patients and to treat patients as they would their own loved ones.

Not surprisingly, Shoop enthusiastically embraced that approach. "Every single person can make a difference," he said, adding that he extends that philosophy to how he treats his 52-person staff as well.

 

The compassionate cook

 

Shoop got his first job working for a Delaware County butcher at age 13. Later, he attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He trained in classic European styles and had several restaurants in the southern U.S.

When Shoop took over the operation at CTCA in August 2008, he instituted a kitchen management system developed in France, the Brigade System, in which every person in the kitchen has a specific station and task.

Shoop said that with this system, he aims to eliminate chaos and manage through silence.

Shoop's kitchen was quiet and orderly during one recent visit. Mangoes, avocados and other fresh fruits and vegetables lay on pristine metal countertops that reflected the vibrant colors. Even during the busy lunch prep period, the kitchen was remarkably calm. A pastry chef lined trays with some of the 400 pastries prepared daily. Another cook delicately placed rows of shrimp on a tray.

But there is more to Shoop's kitchen than order.

"Our purpose is so wonderful and beautiful," he said of working at a cancer-treatment center. "The people that were complaining in my restaurant - I just gave them another martini."

At CTCA, he consults with patients to find foods that they can tolerate and enjoy and that will make them more receptive to treatment and recovery. He packs all the meals with nutrients and flavor while reducing unnecessary saturated fats and other potentially harmful components.

His cream of asparagus soup, for instance, has 80 percent less saturated fat than conventional recipes. Parsnips, olive and corn oils, taro root and cornstarch replace flour, butter and cream while maintaining traditional appearance, texture and flavor.

Shoop's kitchen also uses a few special ingredients that aren't found on any grocery store shelf.

"Really it's about two Ls - loving and listening," Shoop said.

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