UPPER EAST SIDE — When Pnina Peled makes rounds to patients at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center she doesn't wear a stethoscope. She wears a chef's hat.
Peled is the hospital's executive chef who visits patients with eating problems caused by treatment side effects, dietary restrictions and a host of other complications that could affect their appetite.
The former chef de cuisine at the New York Helmsley Hotel, who also worked at Becco and Eleven Madison Park and who was a winner of the Food Network's "Chopped," Peled has become the model in the medical world for transforming dreaded hospital food into more palatable fare.
It's becoming more common nowadays for hospitals to hire chefs like Peled, who come from the restaurant or hospitality industry and are responsive to different tastes, from gluten-free diets to ethnic dishes.
"You can't control your treatment or medicine or people coming into your room poking you," said Peled, who joined the hospital in 2009 and is working on a cookbook based on the puree menu she pioneered for patients who can't eat solids.
"But you can control food."
Lenox Hill Hospital tossed all fried foods off its menu less than a year ago — a move many other institutions had already made — and unveiled a new carte in June, said Karen Travali, head of the hospital's food and nutrition services.
"Before, you just had your standard turkey and meatloaf. It was time to change," she said. "They were stuck in the 1970s."
The new menu features chef specials such as as whole wheat pancakes, grilled chicken with leeks and pork roulade with spinach. The hospital upgraded from catfish to salmon, added more vegetarian options and now uses fresh produce (rather than frozen) 85 percent of the time. It buys local as often as possible, Travali said.
The new menu at Mount Sinai is all about "stealth health," said senior executive chef Matthew Krimsky, who started at the hospital in May when the Compass Group — a major food service management company — took over the kitchen and cafeteria.
The meatloaf went from 100 percent ground beef to a leaner combination that's mostly turkey. The chocolate cake recipe replaced butter with apple sauce.
"We want people to be eating foods they enjoy and recognize," he said. Eating well and healthily are important in "getting people out of the hospital, which is the ultimate goal."
NYU Langone Medical Center is rebuilding its kitchen following Hurricane Sandy for a September opening and plans to have a new state-of-the-art cafeteria by the winter.
"Our vision is to become a world-class academic center, and serving our patients healthy food was a critical part of that," said Amy Horrocks, vice president for hospital operations.
It achieved silver status last year under the city's Healthy Hospital Food Initiative, which sets standards for cafeterias, vending machines and patient meals.
The hospital debuted room service in 2012 for maternity patients, offering red wine-braised beef short ribs or grilled pork tenderloin with mushroom demi-glace, said Betty Perez, senior director of food and nutrition services.
There's also a breakfast cart for partners who stay overnight, and afternoon tea or cucumber water.
"They are actually our most vocal patients in terms of letting us know how they feel about food," Horrocks said of the new mothers. "They're actually very healthy, and food is very important to them."
New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center's Miriam Zamparelli — who worked at Windows on the World and at Starwood Hotels — makes sure she sees at least 20 patients a week, said Alan Lee, a hospital vice president.
It may not sound like a lot, considering there are 800 patients in the hospital, but Lee said the visits go a long way in getting feedback.
Chefs have been talking with parents and kids in the pediatrics unit and in the oncology units, where patients may have suppressed appetites. They've reached out to new mothers in the OB department, where once the staff would bring a miniature lava cake to celebrate a new birth.
"We were operating on the assumption that people love chocolate," Lee said. "But the lava cake, with its hot chocolate oozing from the center, was very decadent. [Moms were saying], 'I don't know if I should be eating this. My body image is not where I want it.'"
Then the hospital gave them cheesecake. Now, they offer sparkling water.
"We're trying to figure out new ways every day we can delight the patient," Lee said.
The hospital network — which achieved bronze status in the city's Healthy Hospital Food Initiative — is also trying to encourage healthier habits in its cafeterias.
An employee program in development, for example, will give discounts on healthy food choices and put premiums on less healthy ones, Lee said.
"Family members sometimes look for comfort food," he added. "We feel like we're being irresponsible when we have potato chips in vending machines. Pizza is our top seller in the cafeteria, but we're making sure that pizza is as healthy as it can be."
Arroz con pollo, chicken cacciatore, Jambalaya and beef and broccoli stir fry are some of the dishes that executive chef Charles Smith has been tinkering with for the 26,500 daily meals whipped up five days a week at the Health and Hospitals Corporation's food services plant at Kings County Hospital.
Over the past year the city's public hospital network phased in a low-salt diet by doing such things as adding more thyme to the chicken stock, said Smith, who has worked as a chef at the Ritz Carlton.
"We may not use salt," Smith said, "but maybe I can use twice the amount of curry or twice the amount cumin or cilantro."
Even in a large network, Smith and staffers regularly meet with patients before new menus come out in October and April.
"It's not a bunch of suits and chef jackets making decisions," he said. "Patients have a say."