Five-Star Chef at Backus Believes ‘Food is Medicine’
by Elissa Bass
Back when he was chef de cuisine at Paragon in Foxwoods Casino, Scott Mickelson would get late-night calls to hold the kitchen open because the cast of “The Sopranos” wanted dinner. Or the E Street Band. Or BB King.
For 23 years, Mickelson had to know on a daily basis where to find European white truffles, Grade A foie gras or whatever else a celebrity’s palate was craving.
These days, wearing chef whites in the Backus Hospital kitchen means Mickelson has to cater to 140 different diets a day, ensuring that recipes and ingredient lists are meticulously followed because “it can mean life or death for a patient.”
He arrived at Backus in March 2020 as the pandemic was shutting down restaurants and he was out of a job for the first time in 40-plus years.
“I got a call from a recruiter who said, ‘I see there’s no healthcare on your resume.’ I was a little surprised I got the call, because honestly I had zero qualifications to step into a hospital kitchen. But they made me an offer and I stepped into the biggest learning curve of my career,” he remembered.
Mickelson started his culinary journey where most chefs in southeastern Connecticut did in the early 1980s — the Harborview Restaurant in Stonington. From there, he had a distinguished career in many of the region’s finest restaurants, from Skipper’s Dock to Lighthouse Inn to most every restaurant at Foxwoods.
There, he made a tableside Caesar salad for Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett would call to put in special orders before arriving for his shows. Then Mickelson’s wife passed away, and he left the casino to spend time with his children.
He returned to work for many restaurants along the shoreline, including M Bar, Bravo and Go Fish. When the pandemic started, he was working for JTK Management, which did catering at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and ran restaurants like Steak Loft and Go Fish.
When Mickelson arrived at Backus, “I knew I had to immerse myself in the environment and understand the needs and protections that are in place. The menus are all created at the system level to meet the needs of each patient. My creativity in the kitchen does not hold any water in this job.”
A staff of 85, with 10 cooks, puts out meals for patients and staff every day. Staff can require 150 to 200 meals for each of the three shifts. There’s the cafeteria and a wide array of “grab and go” foods. Everything has to be fresh, taste good and appeal to the clientele.
For the patients, “We batch cook everything fresh. The myth of hospital food is they back the truck up to the loading dock, take all this frozen food and dump it in the steamer. Not anymore. As healthcare has become more mindful of patient needs, we have become so much better at what we do.”
These days, instead of creating dishes like squid ink pasta tossed in lemon-saffron oil with fresh lobster, roasted shallots, scallions and enoki mushrooms, Mickelson focuses on recipe compliance.
“We have to be absolutely correct with the specific ingredients for each recipe,” he said. “The slightest change in ingredients can throw the nutrition off and then the wheels fall off the bus. It’s life or death sometimes.”
And, instead of leaving the kitchen to visit patrons tableside, Mickelson does weekly rounding to ask patients about the food.
“Patient safety and satisfaction are equally important to me,” he said. “What our patients eat can help get them healthy and back home. Food is medicine.”