Darren Hawley will prepare Christmas dinner for about 700 guests this year.
Hawley, executive chef at Munson Healthcare, will whip up a traditional holiday meal with all the trimmings to make the stays of Munson Medical Center patients a little brighter.
"I think it's tough on them to be in the hospital on Christmas," said Hawley, who came to Munson in June after five years at Crystal Mountain Resort. "The people who are here have to be here. A lot of times they can be pretty down about it.
"If there's something we can do to help make them happy, we like to do it."
A festive dinner reminiscent of more traditional holidays can be uplifting for patients and their families who have to spend Christmas in the hospital — even if it's eaten in a hospital bed or cafeteria, said the Rev. Kathy Steen, lead chaplain for Munson Medical Center.
"Food is always symbolic," Steen said. "It's something that nourishes not only our body, but our soul. When you're not able to be at the family table at Christmas, to have that meal — even if it's not in that traditional setting — is a symbol of that."
Hawley said the dinner — served for all three shifts beginning around 2 Christmas morning — is free to Munson employees and their families, whether or not they work that day. It's also open to the public at the decorated cafeteria's entrée station.
"We do have a fairly good local following of people who come in just to dine at Munson," said the chef, former proprietor of Stubb's Sweetwater Grill in Northport.
This year's menu includes ham with a mustard-brown sugar-honey glaze, chicken cordon bleu, mashed potatoes and gravy, two vegetable dishes, mac and cheese and several kinds of pies, from pecan and pumpkin to apple with tart Granny Smiths.
"We stick to what's traditional," Hawley said. "A lot of times our patients are not looking for twists on things. I have a philosophy that you keep it simple and you do it well. I like to use the least-processed, -packaged and -marketed ingredients I can find."
Keeping the menu simple also means his department can turn out a festive meal while allowing as many of its employees as possible to spend Christmas at home with their families, Hawley said.
He and staff will prep the day before so the meal is easier to serve.
"We try to run it as tight as we can in terms of labor," he said, adding that he'll have help from about two dozen Food and Nutrition Services employees. "We try to keep the menu fairly simple so we don't have to ask as many people to work."
Jane Karel, an on-call clerk on Munson Medical Center's rehab unit, said the meal provides a festive touch for patients who might not otherwise get to observe the holiday.
"It's nice for the patients, but we probably appreciate it more than they do — just the fact that they get such a nice holiday meal even though they might not be in a state to appreciate it as much," said Karel, of Maple City.
Steen said she often took advantage of the Christmas meal herself when she led Christmas Day services at the hospital chapel.
"With the staff, when they have to work and their family gets to come and share the meal, even for half an hour, it's a way of Munson recognizing the importance of family, the importance of relationships," said the ordained minister, who now leads a meditative Christmas Eve service at the hospital.
Planning a holiday menu for a crowd presents some mathematical challenges, like how many quarts of milk and cups of butter to 40 pounds of potatoes, Hawley said.
Also important considerations: special diets and portion sizes. But the biggest problem is logistics, he said.
"People typically like to eat at one time, so trying to get it all prepared and getting people fed in a timely manner is the biggest challenge," he said.
Food that can't be served right away is donated to Food Rescue of Northwest Michigan for delivery to food pantries, shelters and community meals programs.
Though this year's holiday menu includes two of his favorite recipes, below, Hawley isn't scheduled to work on Christmas.
"I haven't had a Christmas off in five years," said the chef, who plans to eat Christmas dinner at his parents' house on Glen Lake.