How an Arkansas hospital became a ramen destination

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- "Delicious" isn't always a word we use to describe hospital food, but one chef is changing perceptions of what cafeteria food can be. Three days a week at the Arkansas Heart Hospital, chef Coby Smith dishes out what's arguably the most authentic Japanese ramen in town.

"Since we've been doing this, we've had thousands and thousands of people come to this hospital for one reason only and that's just to eat our food," Smith said.

Customer Jenna Rhodes told CBS News correspondent Adriana Diaz she works across town at Arkansas Children's Hospital.

"So you came from another hospital?" Diaz asked.

"Another hospital to this hospital to have lunch, yes," Rhodes responded.
 
For a few years, Smith has been turning around the hospital's kitchen after Dr. Bruce Murphy, the hospital's CEO, said the food was too institutional.  

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Chef Coby Smith  

CBS News

"Food that has been prepared elsewhere, canned, and you open a bag and you serve to people after you warmed it up… Not fresh food, not vibrant food," Murphy said. "It's hospital food and we wanted to change that."

He demanded that ingredients be fresh, the food delicious, and one more thing: "He wanted to have authentic Japanese ramen," Smith said.

"I was being a little bit selfish because I love ramen noodles and I figured everybody else would love ramen noodles," Murphy said.

He discovered his love for the dish while traveling in Asia.

"I didn't even think twice about where the best place in the world was for him to learn how to cook ramen. It's Tokyo. We've got to go to Tokyo," Murphy said.

So for a week, Smith visited the doctor's favorite ramen shops and met with their chefs.

"These guys do the same job every day over and over again for 30, 40, 50 years," Smith said. "They take their craft so literally and they're so – it's an honor for them."

Once back in Arkansas, he spent eight months trying to turn his research into ramen, starting with the all-important broth.

"It's like a small child. You have to nurture it and watch it and make sure all the ingredients are the same," Smith said.

"Can you even learn how to make authentic ramen in one week?" Diaz asked.

"No, you can't do it, but you do the best you can with what you have," Smith said. "We're in the South so you know we have a southern twist to a lot of our ramen dishes."

Twists like crawfish and okra. On the day we visited, it was pork belly day. 

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A bowl of chef Coby Smith's ramen.

CBS News

Little Rock food critic Kevin Shalin was "very skeptical" of the concept of hospital-made ramen – until he tried it. 

"If a restaurant was serving this kind of ramen, would you rate it as highly?" Diaz asked.

"Yeah," he responded. "Just because it's being served in a hospital, I don't rate it any differently. It is good ramen."

So good that on ramen days parking becomes a problem.

"It's been so successful that I can't get to my ramen shop because there are other people in line," Murphy said.

A rare problem in the realm of hospital food.