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Chef Jon LeFebvre – Reconnecting Hospice Patients with the Meals They Love

Of all the important meals in a person’s life, it is their final one that Chef Jon LeFebvre has the honor of preparing.  As the Executive Chef at Regional Hospice and Palliative Care’s in-patient Center for Comfort Care & Healing, Jon and his culinary team have given many people the gift of food as they approach their end of life.

There’s Something Special About Cooking for a Hospice Patient

As an accomplished chef who graduated from the Connecticut Culinary Institute, Jon has won statewide competitions for garde menger (the art of decorating foods), prepared meals for the King of Qatar, created meals for commercial airlines and helped establish a catering company that sourced 90% of their food locally.  However, Jon asserts there is nothing quite like the experience of cooking for a hospice patient. “It’s a certain feeling that can’t be described, knowing that you’re literally cooking someone their last meal.  To hear how comforting it was for them, there’s something very special about it.”

Regional Hospice – Not Like Other Medical Facilities

When the Center first opened in 2015, a conscious decision was made to invest in trained chefs who are passionate about serving fresh, made-to-order meals. Different from traditional food service, the professionals hired had to have a deep appreciation for quality food, along with a dedication to caring for people at the end of their lives. The meals they would prepare could be the last gift a dying patient received.  Jon and his team (he asserts you are only as good as your team is; and he brags that he has the best), make sure their food is NOTHING like hospital food.

As part of this role, Chef Jon interacts with patients regularly.  Through these meetings, he hears stories about their lives and learns about their tastes and food preferences.  If a patient tells him that they want a certain meal, he will do everything in his power to make it happen within the next 24 – 48 hours.

Connecting with People Through Food

When asked for examples, Jon gets choked up.  He reflects on the many patients who have touched his life, and it seems he could go on for hours recounting their tales.  One patient, Sara, who was at the Center for over six months, formed a special connection with Jon.  She was a bona fide “foodie” whose ALS diagnosis took away most of her functioning, but her ability to eat was one of the last things that brought her joy.  LeFebvre would visit Samaha every night to ask her what she would like to eat. “There wasn’t much she didn’t like,” he admits. Yet, at the same time she was always very honest. He would stop by her room before heading out for the evening and ask, “Did I pass or fail?” She would give him candid feedback, usually accolades, but sometimes indicating with a chuckle, “Try again tomorrow.”

An Evolving Menu

Sara was one of the first patients to fully embrace the Center’s adaptable menu, often giving the kitchen freedom to explore their creativity by indicating “Chef’s Choice” on her menu sheet. Her willingness to explore helped the kitchen team expand the menu from its initial 12 items, to well over 100 options with the many combinations and special requests available.

Tasting Food When Swallowing Is Not Possible

As an atypical kitchen setting, LeFebvre is often challenged by new requests.  A patient with esophageal cancer lost her ability to swallow and eat.  Hooked up to a feeding tube, she hadn’t eaten food in many months, but that did not mean she didn’t still crave her favorites.  Jon and his team cooked food for her regularly so she could get the taste of the foods in her mouth and take pleasure in eating again.  Even though she would have to spit everything out, just getting to taste those foods again was such a joy for her.  Jon chuckles thinking about this, noting how strange it is that someone spitting out their food brought the chefs such happiness.

Revisiting Life Through Food

Recently, there was a patient at the Center, “Steven,” whose life review consisted of him journeying through his favorite meals.  He would write out concise recipes of his favorite foods for the chefs to prepare.  Jon and his team would follow his instructions to a T and bring each meal to his room to enjoy.  He would call them after every meal and let them know what he thought.  The biggest gift for Jon was when Steven would thank them and report that the meal was “better than he remembered it from when he was younger.”

Fulfilling a Dying Wish

This same patient mentioned to Jon that he had never tried trout, but he would like to before he dies.  Jon, who enjoys fishing, took to the Farmington River on his days off and made it his personal mission to make sure this patient got to experience fresh trout.  It took him 3 weeks and 5 days of trying, but Jon caught two different varieties of trout (so Steven could taste the difference in species, naturally) and prepared it for him within 30 hours of being caught.  Steven said he loved it and exclaimed that he could even taste the freshness!

Their Last Joy

Jon fully understands that food is often a hospice patient’s “last joy.” Knowing that each meal he serves could be the last for a patient sometimes weighs heavy on his mind, which is why he and his fellow kitchen colleagues try to be as accommodating as possible. “You can tell when someone makes something that they really care about,” he explains, “I never want to sacrifice quality for convenience.” The work is hard, but worth it for LeFebvre who says, “This is easily the best job I’ve ever had. I love this place. This is a second family to me now.”

Jon LeFebvre is the Executive Chef at Regional Hospice and Palliative Care’s Center for Comfort Care & Healing.  When not providing comfort to hospice patients and their families through the gift of food, Jon is perfecting his barbecue recipe, which he created in the Center’s kitchen, hoping to establish “New England Style Barbecue” using local flavors as an inspiration.

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