Mise en place. That’s the term that comes to mind when Jeff Donar thinks about Chef Ron Hall. It’s a French phrase Donar learned in culinary school; it means “everything in its place.”
Donar, a cook, has worked for Hall in the Mercy Iowa City kitchen for nearly four years. “You can tell when [Chef Ron] gets an idea, he’s thinking of every detail of it,” Donar said.
Today, in fact, Hall is thinking about tomorrow’s menu—an herb cod with gorgonzola butter and basil pesto pasta. “Lunch and dinner, the menu is different every day,” Hall said. “It’s whatever I want to put out there.”
Mercy Hospital serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to its patients, as well as to staff and visitors in the hospital’s cafeteria. It’s open to the public Monday through Friday from 6:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. There’s an oatmeal bar, hot entrees and specials throughout the week: Smoothie Mondays, Taco Bar Wednesdays, Oatmeal Bar Fridays. Hospital food may get a bad rap, but the ladies at Mercy’s front desk will caution to be careful here, that your tray may fill up unexpectedly because Hall’s food is that good.
Monday through Friday, Hall arrives at Mercy at 4:30 a.m. to begin prepping for the day ahead. He used to be a Diet Pepsi drinker, he says, but he “quit that a couple years ago” in exchange for two cups of coffee per day.
Hall is soft-spoken but easy to spot—a traditional tall chef’s hat balances on top of his head. Hall doesn’t count his steps during the work day, but if he did, he would surely exceed 10,000. Back and forth he traverses the kitchen—sautéing green beans here, greeting patrons there, mixing gorgonzola cheese with butter, chopping fresh rosemary, thyme and parsley. Around 2 p.m., Hall finally retreats to his office, where he replies to emails, plans events and searches for new recipes online. His desktop background rotates through photos of his grandchildren and his award-winning cheesecakes.
For over 50 years, Hall has been working in kitchens. At 16 years old, he took a job as a busboy at the Holiday Inn in Coralville, where he later took over as a breakfast cook. In 1966, he traveled to California under the Job Corps program, where he learned cooking skills and earned his GED. Later, Hall worked for several years at the Lark Supper Club in Tiffin, as well as a number of other local kitchens. He’s been Mercy’s executive chef for 25 years.
Donar said that it can be difficult for a chef to transition from a restaurant to a hospital cafeteria. So Hall does what many chefs don’t, says Donar. “He’ll do small batches. Five minutes before [a batch] is done, he’ll start his next batch. So you’re getting really fresh food. And it’s hard to get some cooks to do that, but he’s really, really great about it.”
Hall has a kitchen philosophy, a certain phrase he’s coined: “When you put [the food] out, you ‘put the lipstick on,’” he said. “That means you make it look pretty. Chopped parsley, chopped bacon on top. Something to make it stand out.”
Today, Hall and his crew have prepared three main dishes and three sides along with the cafeteria’s daily staples (a salad bar, the burrito station, the dessert cooler). A plate of chili roasted cod, soaked in butter, cumin and lime juice and topped with asparagus, costs $3.50. A side of red skin mashed potatoes, made from scratch with sour cream and scallions, costs $1.00. Everything is priced a la carte.
Meanwhile, Mercy patients receive their meals on a seven-day rotation to limit repetition. Hall emphasizes “variety and attention to taste and detail,” he said.
Morgan DeZori, a Mercy dietician, said Hall has been collaborating with her team lately to create gluten-free and dairy-free dishes that they think taste good enough to feature on patients’ menus.
Big picture, the food is “really just like at home, but on a lot bigger scale,” Hall said.
Hall estimates about three-fourths of his cafeteria’s clientele are Mercy Hospital staff. Mike Lebseck, a physician referral relations coordinator, has been eating at Mercy every day for nearly 29 years. “The seafood’s hard to beat here. Period,” Lebseck said. “Also, the Brussels sprouts. They’re out of this world.”
Celia Eckermann and Michelle Marks, who work for the Mercy Hospital Foundation, praise Hall’s tenderloin steak. The two women often bring Mercy meals home to their husbands in to-go boxes. “If I don’t eat it on the way home,” Marks joked.
“It’s the best kept secret,” Eckermann said
Eckermann and Marks say Hall has donated his time and culinary talents to their foundation, as well as to countless charitable initiatives in the community. Hall was a founding member of Table to Table, a food rescue and distribution organization, and in 1999 he organized the first annual Thanksgiving in July, a statewide food drive that supplies food in the summer months when food donations tend to decline. Last year, the program collected 146 tons of food. Hall also prepares gourmet meals and carves intricate ice sculptures to raise awareness and money for food insecurity across the state.
Hall experienced food insecurity as a child, which perhaps explains his passion for raising awareness of hunger. Hall grew up in a renovated boxcar in Iowa City, at one time along with 13 family members. In a 2017 Press-Citizen profile of Hall, the chef conceded, “I remember Dad would come home with three-day-old rolls so hard you couldn’t eat them, so we’d turn them into bread pudding.”
But of his countless hours of charitable work, Hall merely says, “Food is important. Pretty much every holiday, every event … they all center around food. Everything has that food connection, and it’s something that everybody appreciates. That’s why I stick with it.”
Giving and kindness seem to flow through Hall, down to his core. Hall has no secret recipes—even his award-winning cheesecake recipes are for the taking. Many of Hall’s recipes are posted on Mercy’s website; others he’ll happily email upon request. The chef pays close attention to the wellbeing of his kitchen crew, too. “He sees somebody’s having a bad day, and he makes sure he says, ‘Hey, how you doing? Is there anything I can do for you?’” said Domar.
At 4:30 p.m., Hall wraps up his 12-hour day at Mercy and sets off for his home in Washington, Iowa. Hall, for the record, is 67 years old. When asked if he is tired, Hall simply replies, “I sleep well,” and chuckles.