The winning teams

First place: Oconee Medical Center

Appetizer: Shrimp trio sampler with remoulade sauce and a fruit salad in a watermelon cube.

Entree: Spicy black bean and chickpea burger topped with avocado cilantro slaw on a stoneground wheat slider bun and served with an orange and jicama salad.

Dessert: Lemon and blueberry delight served with a ginger snap wafer.

Second place: Palmetto Health

Appetizer: Yellow tomato gazpacho.

Entree: Cod glazed in banana barbecue sauce, Santa Fe quinoa relish and chayote squash.

Dessert: Carrot apple smoothie.

Third place: Georgetown Hospital System

Appetizer: Chilled watermelon and tomato gazpacho.

Entree: Grilled shrimp spiedini with farro, mushroom and squash.

Dessert: Seared nectarine with burnt honey, unbaked meringue and almond crisp.

Other hospitals participating in the contest: Medical University of South Carolina, Baptist Easley Hospital, Beaufort Memorial Hospital, Laurens County Health Care System, Piedmont Medical Center, Providence Hospital and Providence Hospital Northeast.

Feeling out of their league, a team composed of a chef, two dietitians and an accountant from Oconee County expressed shock after beating out nine other teams in Friday’s Cooking Well Invitational at the Culinary Institute of Charleston.

The invitational spotlighted efforts by South Carolina hospitals to make food healthier and more appetizing. Four-member teams from 10 hospitals had two hours each to create a three-course meal for $5 that met nutritional standards for health.

The event was attended by celebrity chef Robert Irvine, star of the Food Network’s TV show “Restaurant: Impossible.”

The winning team from Oconee Medical Center won for a meal featuring the only vegetarian entrée — a black bean and chickpea burger with avocado cilantro dressing — out of the 10 entries in the contest.

When the announcement came, Oconee’s chef Emily Hancock recalled that she turned to her teammates and said, “Did he really say that?” Other team members yelled, then interchangeably laughed and cried tears of joy, as they headed to the podium to accept their award.

Oconee’s Chef Emily Hancock says her team members had never been in a cooking competition before Friday and really weren’t used to cooking under pressure.

“We had a lot to learn and a lot to do in a short amount of time,” Hancock said. “The competition that was here today was outstanding. It was very surprising (we won) because of the level of talent that was here today. It was a great win for us and for our hospital, Oconee Medical Center.”

Their entire menu included an appetizer of a grilled shrimp with tzatziki and remoulade sauces, and a fruit salad in a watermelon cube. The black bean and chickpea burger slider, a popular dish at Oconee Medical Center, was served with an orange and jicama salad and avocado cilantro slaw. The dessert was ginger snap wafers with a blueberry fruit topping.

Because no pre-made products could be brought in, the team had to make the bun and the wafers on site in a pan.

Among the nutritional criteria that the teams had to satisfy was keeping the main dish under 550 calories with no more than 35 percent total fat, including no more than 10 percent saturated fat, and less than 800 milligrams of sodium.

Similar stringent standards were in place for the appetizer and desserts.

Judges, however, scored the teams not only on nutritional standards, but taste, creativity, portion size, temperature and color. Team members themselves also were judged on grooming and uniforms.

The judges, all chefs and instructors from the culinary school at Trident Technical College, said the scores in the competition were close and were amazed at the quality of food.

“I think all the hospital groups hit the mark. It was a close margin. They were all within 20 points of each other,” said judge Donald Barickman. “It was interesting to see what they could do. If I ever go to the hospital, I look forward to my next meal.”

While Barickman said he thinks the farm-to-table movement is helping make food more healthy in general, hospitals are becoming leaders in changing eating habits for the better.

Judge Randy Williams noted that the contest demonstrated that the chefs are “putting the hospitality back into hospital food,” which has long had a reputation for being unhealthy and bad tasting.

Irvine was unable to stay for the announcement of the winners, but offered a critique of some of the dishes, as well as a few words of inspiration, before he left.

Without naming names, Irvine criticized one team for putting barbecue sauce on fresh fish because all it needed was seasoning and proper cooking. He chastised one cook for putting rosemary in sweet potatoes. And in general, he said some of the teams lacked leadership.

“There has to be a leader. There is one leader that will control that kitchen. Over there, I saw very passive leadership. Leaders raise their voices to get excellence. Not scream. But to control the situation,” he said.

Meanwhile, he compared the leadership that hospitals have taken in curbing tobacco use with the movement taking place in making healthier food.

“I truly believe hospitals will drive healthier food through the country,” Irvine. “It just takes a little time because we don’t like change. But it will happen and you will be part of that revolution.

“Take the food to another level because I truly believe you can. If you are infectious with your passion for food, we won’t have an epidemic of obesity moving forward. We will change. You heard what I said, we will change the way we do business.”