‘Chef’ brings colorful background to hospital cafeteria

Published 6:42 am Sunday, June 27, 2021

Wesley Pounders still remembers his first attempt at roasting a chicken.

The Caledonia native was a student at East Mississippi Community College, living in Starkville on his own for the first time and learning how to cook.

“I remember my first time roasting a chicken and how horrible it was,” he said. “And then I remember doing it a few months later and it was the best thing I ever had. It just grew on from there. … It’s funny how you find your passion.”

Now “Chef,” as he is known to his co-workers, heads the culinary scene at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle as head chef, overseeing the kitchen staff and preparing meals not only for the patients, but their families, the staff and even catering events.

Pounders said he didn’t really plan to become a chef when he went to EMCC. He started without declaring a major, assuming he would find what he loved while at college. Ironically, it wasn’t classes, but watching cooking shows on TV after class while trying his hand at whatever the celebrity chefs were preparing that pointed him toward what would become his career.

“I remember watching ‘Alton Brown Good Eats’ a lot whenever I’d get home from college,” he said. “… I’d get back from school and I’d just watch TV and cook. And as the days went on, I started to realize how much I really enjoyed cooking different things.”

After a couple of years at EMCC, Pounders enrolled in the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Baton Rouge, an experience that took him to the culinary scene in New Orleans and introduced him to celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse, Michael Chiarello and Tyler Florence.

“I really enjoyed that type of experience you get working beside some of those guys and catching small things that they do that you wouldn’t see otherwise,” he said. “It’s huge, regardless if it’s just for a few hours.”

From there, he took a position as a cook and worked his way up to sous chef, starting with Aramark at Mississippi State University and later moving to Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach, Alabama, working through both the COVID-19 pandemic and a hurricane at the latter.

As the pandemic wound down, Pounders said, he wanted to spend more time with family, but he also was switching interest from simply cooking to health care, which brought him to Morrison’s Health Care, the food vendor at Baptist. There, he said, he’s gotten to blend the more creative side of cooking with caring for patients and their families.

“I got into cooking because I enjoy the creative aspect of it,” Pounders said. “But as the years went on, I realized how much I do from a care aspect. I like seeing the look on people’s face whenever you provide something for them. What better way to do it than in a hospital, cooking for someone not only something that they enjoy but something that they need as well.”

At hospitals, that means balancing the sort of food patients are willing to eat with what’s healthy for them. Certain health conditions require certain diets, Pounders explained, and nearly every patient is on a low-sodium diet. But that doesn’t mean patients don’t ever get to eat what they want, nor does it mean the hospital can’t provide for special culinary requests.

For example, Pounders said about three weeks ago, he cooked for a patient who was vegan.

“Every morning I made him tofu scrambled eggs,” Pounders said. “It was essentially just tofu, cooked in a nonstick skillet and I added a little turmeric in there to make it yellow like scrambled eggs. Little soy milk in there as well. So there’s been a few times when there’s been requests.

“I like doing that,” he added. “You get to exercise your creativity.”

CREATIVE CUISINES

Pounders said he loves making pasta or anything Italian — but he also likes Cajun, from spending so much time cooking in Louisiana and on the coach, and “authentic” Mexican cuisine. And if you ask him the healthiest type of food to eat, he’ll tell you it’s specific to the individual person, but one good one is the Mediterranean diet.

He has his own portable wood-fired oven for making pizza and fresh pastas, but he also has stories about cooking alligator in a “Cajun microwave” — a buggy-sized box covered by a steel plate on which you pile coals.

“The heat is on top and the meat is on the bottom,” Pounders said. “It’s an experience when you have a bunch of family around and a bunch of friends around and you’re cooking a gator in a Cajun microwave.”

When Pounders isn’t working, he likes fishing, watching movies — “I’m a pretty big movie buff” — and of course cooking for his family, and especially cooking with his 13-year-old niece. Now that he’s back in Lowndes County he’s spending more time with his family — and he’s looking forward to putting his own spin on Baptist’s menu as he settles into the position.

“There are things that living in Louisiana, living on the coast, Gulf Shores and Orange Beach … I got to really dig into any type of cuisine I was curious about,” he said. “(I want) to potentially bring that here and hopefully give some people something that they haven’t had before and a way that they will enjoy it.”