In This Colorado Hospital, Fine Dining And Comfort Food Share The Same Kitchen At Manna

A common perception about hospital food stands true for most care facilities in the country. The food usually mirrors the clinical setting — sterile, tasteless, and colorless. However, in Castle Rock, Colorado, Manna restaurant challenges this stereotype by being the primary source of meals for patients in AdventHealth Castle Rock while acting as a sit-down gourmet restaurant within the hospital. The hospital's culinary director, Chef Dan Skay, is on a mission to transform hospital food, providing nutritious meals prepared with passion and an artisanal flair for those who need it most.

Recognizing that patients and their families, facing challenging times, require a respite that doesn't feel clinical, Skay creates a warm and inviting sanctuary at Manna. Unlike a traditional hospital cafeteria, the restaurant serves as a comforting escape from the upheaval of a life disrupted by medical needs.

"There's that time when there's free time, so rather than waiting in a waiting room, [the restaurant] acts as a refuge," says Skay. "A place to breathe that isn't sterile. It's warm and comfortable. We have an open kitchen, so the smell of the food wafts into the dining room." Chef Skay contemplates the solace that Manna restaurant provides to AdventHealth Castle Rock's patients and their families. However, you don't have to be a patient at the hospital to experience Manna's uniquely cozy environment; the establishment is open to the public and has firmly established itself as a cornerstone in the Denver-adjacent mountain town.

Where the worlds of culinary art and healthcare convene

Most people don't keep their town's hospital at the top of their list when deciding where their next gourmet meal will come from, but for many residents of Castle Rock, that's precisely the case. Members of the public with no ties to the hospital can come in during the restaurant's regular hours of operation and order an expertly prepared meal made with fresh, local ingredients.

"We like to surprise the public by offering a place with unique dishes in an unconventional setting," says chef Dan Skay. While gourmet dining is often associated with upscale establishments for the affluent, at Manna, everyone can indulge in a delicious meal that nurtures the body and spirit.

But, operating a restaurant within a hospital comes with unique obstacles. "Hiring can be challenging due to background checks that need to be conducted because the restaurant is located in a care facility," says Skay. "But on the plus side, there are benefits for employees like full coverage medical care." He often reflects on the differences between Manna and a traditional restaurant environment, which are surprisingly few and far between.

Perhaps the most significant difference between Manna and a conventional restaurant is Manna's non-profit model. Everything the restaurant earns is reinvested back into the hospital, helping to ensure that the facility can provide exceptional care for years to come.

Fresh, local ingredients make Manna a household name in Castle Rock

At Manna, fresh meat and produce from the plentiful bounty of a Colorado harvest provide the sustenance that patients need. Whether it's beef, lamb, or vegetables, each meal at Manna is meticulously prepared with ingredients that contribute to the health of Castle Rock residents and the surrounding environment.

The restaurant is home to a 14,000-square-foot garden that provides the fresh produce featured on the menu. When asked what he loves about working with Manna's homegrown ingredients, Dan Skay says, "Mushrooms are very versatile, and we raise them in our own Farmbox. Using local produce shows that we care about sustainable farming practices, and it just tastes better."

It's no secret that Colorado winters can be harsh, and the cold brings a lack of fresh products to work with, but chef Skay appreciates the varied climate of the mountains despite its challenges. "We do what we can. There are always grains, so fall is grits and polenta and pasta and legumes — dried food and shelf-stable products."

When the seasons change, so does the menu at Manna, giving patients and patrons various enticing options throughout the year. "We don't want to limit ourselves to a cycle menu. We try to create a menu that's creative and unique. The changing season keeps it exciting," says chef Skay.

Nutritious food is proactive healthcare

As the culinary director and nutrition manager at Manna, Dan Skay uses his tools and experience to incorporate a healthy element into gourmet dining. Instead of addressing health issues after they manifest, nutritious food serves as a preventive measure, supporting overall well-being by emphasizing a crucial aspect of a healthy lifestyle. "At Manna, the healing ministry we provide is proactive healthcare as opposed to reactive," he explains.

Manna's menu features a diverse range of fruits, vegetables, and locally sourced, grass-fed meat, with minimal reliance on heavily processed ingredients and a focus on whole foods. The restaurant also concentrates heavily on plant-based menu items for the health of patients and community members while keeping meat options lean and high-quality. Chef Skay notes that Manna collaborates with hospital staff to create meals tailored to patients' specific dietary needs, all while offering appealing options for them to anticipate.

Manna has succeeded at squashing the stigma surrounding hospital food, while also challenging the notion that healthy food can't taste good. For hospital patients, a delicious meal can be the highlight of their day when recovering from illness, and knowing that the meal contributes to recovery makes it even more satisfying. Manna serves as an exemplar, demonstrating to patients and staff the potential and ideal standard for hospital food.

Simplicity and style is the name of the game

At the heart of Manna's menu and its mission for those recovering from injury and illness is one key element: simplicity. "Start with quality products and keep it simple," says chef Dan Skay. "It doesn't have to be complicated to taste good. The flavor comes through if the products are of good quality. If you start with cheap ingredients, it won't taste great."

Chef Skay highlights the most popular items at Manna: "One of the biggest sellers is 'The Fatted Calf,' made from local, grass-fed Angus beef. The local grass-fed beef always tastes so much better." Another stand-out dish at Manna is the chicken katsu — brined and fried chicken breast served with a crispy jasmine rice cake and Thai red curry sauce, broccoli slaw, and housemade pickles. The eatery presents a lamb burger featuring locally sourced meat, accompanied by a zesty blueberry relish and goat cheese to balance the bold spice. Patients can opt for wood-fired pizzas, providing a tempting alternative to the conventional dining experience found in traditional hospital cafeterias.

Despite the challenges, Manna has been successfully delivering proactive healthcare for patients and community members since 2013. Chef Skay recalls his favorite fortune cookie sentiment that echos the key to Manna's success: "Simplicity and style will bring desirous eyes your way."