Half a dozen cooks bustled around Combs Flat Kitchen at St. Charles Prineville, preparing the day’s specials — Southwest turkey burgers and chicken shawarma pitas.

Hospital employees and visitors waiting for their loved ones stopped by the cafeteria to order and fill up. In addition to the specials, customers could ask for other burgers, pizza or purchase grab-and-go items such as jerky, peanuts or house-made quick breads.

Thom Pastor, food services manager for St. Charles Prineville and Madras, said the food service staff at all four St. Charles campuses works hard to challenge the perception that hospital food is dull.

“We start first and foremost trying to make a broad appeal, but delicious menu,” said Pastor, a former chef. “What I’ve noticed roughly the last decade is there is just no reason the food needs to be bland or boring. It just needs to meet certain needs.”

To develop the menus, Pastor consults with Kelly Ornberg, St. Charles Health System nutrition and diabetes manager. He also works with Benjy Brown, food services manager at the Bend and Redmond campuses.

Pastor, 37, came to St. Charles Health System in 2010 as the executive chef of the Redmond campus. He took over food services for Prineville and Madras about three years ago.

He said hospital kitchens are busy, but much less stressful than the high-pressure culinary world. Pastor graduated from the ­Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and worked in Miami for celebrity chef Norman Van Aken, who is known as the founding father of “New World cooking” and for introducing fusion cooking — combining culinary styles.

Pastor moved to Oregon in 2000. He cooked for King Estate Winery and Market of Choice, both in Eugene. His experience at Market of Choice helped him prepare for working in hospital kitchens because he had to create new meals each day.

“I found that to be very helpful for this because we had to have such a broad range of foods,” he said.

Preparing healthy, well-balanced meals is a staple of hospital cooking. Pastor has his cooks use more herbs and spices than salt and sugar. And fruits or vegetables are always available.

In addition, none of the foods are deep fried.

Inventing healthy meals has become a welcome test for Pastor, who tries not to lean on using bacon and other saturated fats when creating meals. He recently started creating “health bowls,” grab-and-go meals full of vegetables.

While there is a focus on healthy eating, Pastor said, he understands sometimes a patient just needs some comfort food.

“We want it to be easy for people to make a healthy choice, but we are not trying to shove kale down everybody’s throat,” he said. “There are times where people are at their worst moments in their life. Our caregivers might have an especially tough case where ice cream or a brownie and some quiet time is all somebody wants. We need to be able to accommodate that.”

Pastor estimates about 80 percent of food served at the Prineville hospital is for medical staff, friends and family of patients, and the general public; patients make up the remaining 20 percent. He said that ratio is consistent with the other St. Charles campuses.

Each hospital cafeteria is trying to grow as a place for community members to dine. There’s a FedEx driver who often eats at the ­Madras cafeteria and a retired school teacher dines at the Redmond location.

Hospitals are also a good fit for students who need a quiet place to study and an affordable meal, Pastor said.

“We are trying to be a good resource for people to come in any time,” he said.

In the Prineville hospital, which opened its new location two years ago, the cafeteria is in the front of the building next to the waiting room. The noticeable location has attracted more locals, Pastor said. Kombucha on tap and vegetables from the Prineville’s Dancing Cow Farm are also customer draws.

“The location of this cafe in the building is ideal for the public coming in,” he said. “We are really trying to be a nice neighborhood restaurant that happens to be attached to the hospital.”

The hospital cafeterias offer holiday meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas, available to anyone in the community. Usually, friends and families of the patients and medical staff come to dine during the holidays, but Pastor said it can be a good place to go for people who can’t and don’t want to go through the trouble of cooking a meal themselves.

“We are open anyway,” Pastor said.

Danette Overall, the kitchen supervisor, has cooked at the Prineville hospital since 1981. She said more community members have come in since the new hospital opened. And she often gets locals calling ahead and asking her what is on the menu.

Menus are not posted online, so people have to come in or call. One person regularly calls to check if the kitchen’s turkey pumpkin enchiladas are being offered, Overall said.

“They want to come up here and eat,” Overall said. “There are certain specials that are favorites.”

Overall has seen firsthand how food services at the hospitals have changed.

Dietitians used to choose all the meals for the patients, and the patients would only have one option for each meal. In the past few years, the hospitals switched to a room service model in which patients can choose their own meals as long as their caregivers approve.

The Bend and Redmond campuses recently switched to digital room service, eliminating the need for handwritten tickets. The same software will be active in Madras and Prineville by November.

Room service software can tally carbohydrates in real time, automatically remove menu options that are not allowed per the doctor’s diet order and remove menu items that contain foods the patient is allergic to.

“It’s going to be an efficiency improvement and safety improvement for patients,” Pastor said.

As scrubs-clad nurses and hospital visitors enjoyed the daily specials at the Prineville hospital, kitchen staff started preparing for the next day’s meals — stir fry bowls filled with rice, noodles, vegetables and teriyaki chicken or spicy white fish. For dessert, the kitchen offers ice cream atop cones or in a sandwich and Italian ice.

“We have some indulgences, too,” Pastor said. •