Robert Williams doesn’t just prepare food—he serves food for the soul.
Williams, lead cook at Einstein Medical Center Elkins Park, started his food service career at Germantown Hospital and Medical Center, and moved over to Elkins Park a few years after Einstein acquired Germantown in 1997. All told, he’s been at home in the kitchen for nearly 45 years.
People love his food, of course, but Williams’ most satisfying entrée has always been his sunny disposition—and it’s free of charge.
Kenneth Brown, who started as an outpatient at the medical center a year ago, remembers their first meeting. Williams greeted him as he greets most every customer—with a beaming smile.
“I was in the hospital and I was hungry and I found myself walking to the cafeteria,” Brown recalls. “I wasn’t feeling great and it was kind of a lift.”
In Brown’s estimation, you can’t underestimate the healing power of a smile or a kind word, especially when you aren’t feeling well. “He (Williams) is not just making my breakfast,” says Brown. “He’s starting my day off with a smile. There’s somebody who makes a difference, as much as any of the doctors in the hospital. He’s just a nice guy.”
Smiles and kindness are just second nature to Williams, something he doesn’t really think much about. “I’m just being me,” he says. “I’ve been like this for as long as I know, even when I was in the military. (He was in the Army Reserves from 1974 to 1980.) The officers always wanted me around them.”
It was while he was in the military that Williams developed his love of cooking. He could just as easily have done other things. “They wanted me to be a lineman or drive tractors,” Williams says. “I had the points to go higher, but I wanted cooking.”
Williams hung onto his culinary passion in civilian life, and he kept on learning. “It’s just something I always loved,” he says. “Every chef I’ve ever worked with has helped me.”
Over the years, his skills have developed to the point where, in addition to working in the cafeteria, he also works in the kitchen, cooking the food that’s delivered to patient rooms. “I do it all. I help out everywhere,” he says.
Karina Radziak, food service director, appreciates Williams’ wide-ranging talents. “He can work in any position,” she says. “He’s very versatile.” But, she agrees that what customers most appreciate is his generous nature.
“People will flock to him,” she says. “He remembers what people like. He cares. People love interacting with him.”
Williams seems to thrive on that interaction. “I like getting a compliment,” he says. “I like seeing people happy after eating my food.”
The positive impact Williams has on those around him has not gone unrecognized. In 2013, Williams was awarded a "Keeper of the Dream" award, presented on Martin Luther King Day to between one and four Einstein Healthcare Network employees whose values best exemplify the values of the celebrated civil rights leader.
As for himself, Williams doesn’t make a big fuss about awards and such. He just puts his life “in the Lord’s hands” and goes about his business, doing his best to make people feel at home in his cafeteria.
Kenneth Brown still stops to chat with Williams and order a meal. Brown is grateful for the quality medical and rehabilitative care he continues to receive, but he appreciates the difference-making qualities that a non-medical professional like Williams can bring to the patient experience.
“A doctor,” Brown says, “is someone who has a unique skillset, but there’s a compassion and human interaction side that I don’t think you can teach.”