Meet Chef Maxwell

November 24, 2021

Maxwell DeRussy’s introduction to culinary arts came from what many would consider a very ordinary source.

“As a boy, I grew up eating what my step-mom prepared, who was not the greatest cook,” he says. “I remember one day my brother and I were at a friend’s house and they were having Taco Bell. When I took a bite, I was amazed at the intense flavors. It was nothing like what I had at home.”

The food his Thai mother cooked also sparked his early culinary interest.

“When I was with her, I remember very different kinds of food: fish sauce, Thai beef noodle soup, fried rice, very authentic cooking, all from scratch,” he says. “As a kid, I had no idea how cool that was.”

Maxwell, whose favorite food is Asian, had worked for years in restaurants. Later he decided to specialize, so he went to the Art Institute of Tampa for a bachelor’s in culinary management. After graduating, he spent a couple of months in Ireland cooking with some very accomplished and diverse chefs while preparing food for a traditional Irish wedding every weekend.

Back in Florida, he was hired for the football season by Raymond James Stadium, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with two executive chefs, two sous chefs, a huge staff and lots of helpers. The team worked all week long for big productions on Sundays.

While he relished working these gigs, Maxwell needed more stable work. So when he heard All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida needed a cook, he applied and got the job. He’d moved from manager to cook, but absolutely loved it. For the last two years, Maxwell’s been the chef at Siskin Hospital, after stints at Memorial and Vanderbilt University Medical. Along the way, he’s learned to maintain the balance between quality control versus efficiency.

“It all starts with training a new employee,” he says. “They’re all instructed in HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, a management system in which food safety is addressed). Every month, quarter, and year we do ongoing training to get this cemented in the memory. I do a monthly food safety audit for the hospital. It’s so ingrained that you don’t consciously think of it. Staying on top of proper training is paramount.”

An average day for Maxwell starts at 7:00 a.m. He takes a walk-through to check with staff and trouble-shoot mechanical or supply issues, watching for standards observance. He works on various supply orders and frequently checks dates and labels to comply with hospital standards. He creates and constantly builds the patient menu, a two-week set menu in a five-week menu cycle. At Siskin Hospital, Chef Max enjoys significant latitude for new menu ideas.

“I love that I’m able to be creative,” he says. “For example, I started a quesadilla bar, a burrito bar, and am working on a ‘Build Your Own Sandwich’ bar.”

In addition, he does a lot of teaching and training. Nutritional services work is new to most of his staff, so training is important, especially when introducing a new set up for the first time.

“For our Build Your Own Sandwich bar, I created a planogram so staff could see exactly where to place the various ingredients to keep traffic moving,” he says. “I also help set up for lunch and plan menus to utilize leftovers that minimize waste.” He points out Siskin Hospital’s broad menu as a main difference between hospital dining and restaurant dining.

“If you go to a restaurant, they have the exact same menu with the same ingredients every day,” he says. “Our menu changes every day. We are much more extensive in our daily offerings. We also have many different types of diners, as well as our patients’ unique dietary needs to take into consideration. We try to tailor our menu to our diners.”

While aware of food industry trends such as Plant Forward, a plant-based initiative that relies heavily on fresh foods, Maxwell had not yet worked in an organization where such great emphasis was placed on employee health and nutrition. He was, however, aware of general Chattanooga preferences from his time at Memorial.

“Tennesseans prefer southern BBQ, pulled pork, all the stuff that’s really not good for you. We know the associated problems – diabetes, obesity, hypertension,” he says. “We need to build menus to deal with these issues, while simultaneously appealing to southern tastes.”

The changed focus wasn’t such a big leap to make, but it did mean taking a different approach. It necessitated sourcing fresh ingredients from additional suppliers. And without a retail cook, Maxwell did the cooking for a while. Gradually the menu offerings grew, along with the positive responses from curious and courageous diners. Even as he continues to grow the menu diversity, his role as teacher and coach predominates.

“Basic cooking is my focus,” he says. “For me and my staff, it’s teaching every day, alleviating strain, creating better work flows.”