The Gathering Plate

A conceptual exploration into how a community-based food experience could benefit a children's hospital

Hi 👋

I'm trying to revolutionize patient experience through food.

My name is Brenna Sorkin, I'm a senior at Northeastern University, studying Computer Science and Interaction Design with a focus in Healthcare & Accessibility and I have the extreme pleasure of working at Boston Children's Hospital as a User Experience Designer. Check out my website!

I've been passionate about healthcare experience since I chopped off a finger on my dominant hand (not while cooking!) when I was 16. Thankfully, healthcare is finally coming to the realization that it's not enough to just keep people alive - we need to make sure they have as positive an experience as possible. Food is a huge part of that.

Here's a high level view of what I'm conceptualizing:

1. A pop-up restaurant within a hospital that is communal and accessible

2. A series of interactive experiences (events, classes, etc.) for children in the hospital that are enjoyable and promote positive relationships with cooking and food


Background Research 🧠

It is well established that patient experience is directly tied to health outcomes and recovery (Doyle, Lennox and Bell, 2013). Research has also shown that, particularly for children, the hospital experience can be so traumatizing that it damages the well-being of the child (Salmela, Aronen and Salanterä, 2010). While there are endless facets of the patient experience that could be improved, the focus of this project is an innovative and patient-focused food experience within a children’s hospital. Though patients come from a range of different family situations, in general, the transition away from family meals is a major adjustment and contributes greatly to the lack of a sense of normalcy in the hospital. Hospitalized children are already missing out on other developmental opportunities such as school and peer interaction and, since research has shown that frequent family meals lead to better lifelong outcomes for children (Fulkerson et al., 2006), a positive food experience could give them a developmental opportunity back. The current options for food experiences in the hospital are limited to in-room meals, overcrowded and repetitive cafeterias, and chain eateries. I am proposing an alternative that will provide patients and families with an experience that transports them emotionally outside of the hospital and allows them to have a positive experience without compromising the care of the child or having to be far away from them.

This project is an exploration into how the hospital experience could be improved for a number of stakeholders and users. Some of the potential users of this food experience include:

  • Parents of a hospitalized child - having a sick child has been shown to put strain on marriages (Joesch and Smith, 1997), and parents could use the space as a date spot without being far from their child.
  • Families (including the sick child) where the child must live in the hospital for an extended period of time - these children are in a variety of circumstances; they often have strict dietary restrictions or feeding tubes and the child may also be confined to a wheelchair or even a hospital bed, all of which would need to be accounted for in the experience.
  • Families passing through the hospital for follow-ups or outpatient procedures - these families may be here for a limited time, but may be experiencing more acute stress as the experience is out of the norm of them.

I also want to include some sort of interactive component (inspired somewhat by the Seacrest Studios) that allows patients to engage with food or food systems in an interactive and inspiring way. There are many considerations in these concepts, including food safety, dietary restrictions, and participation of patients with different ambulatory needs and those who use feeding tubes instead of ingesting solid food.

For this project, I am developing the brand for this experience and describing in detail how it would function. The final results will live on this site and also be compiled into a polished paper.

Conversations 🗣️

Headshot of Christine Ha

While attending SXSW this year I attended an amazing talk by Masterchef winner Chistine Ha, aka The Blind Cook. She is about to open her first restaurant and I had the opportunity to pick her brain about this project, particularly regarding accessibility.

Me: In your talk, you noted that she was planning for her restaurant for have some “easter eggs” or hidden features specifically for visually impaired people to discover - what are some of those features?

Christine: I want to incorporate Braille menus as a choice for the visually impaired and eventually place little Braille messages around the station...maybe it would reveal a riddle, and if someone solves it (secret password?), they get a free dessert.

Me: I am planning for this space to be part eatery, part show. You mentioned that on MasterChef they created a second meal for you to touch when the challenge was to recreate a plate, which got me thinking about the accessibility of cooking events/demonstrations. What advice would you give for hosting food-related events / demonstrations, in regards to visual impairment?

Christine: Being able to feel a dish is important. Also person giving the demo needs to talk through the demo like it was radio—less usage of pronouns like “it” and “there,” but rather “the pot” or “to the left of the dish.”

Me: How can I present special options of any variety (i.e. braille menu, gluten free, pureed, etc.) in a way that is supportive, positive, and not condescending? I really want users to feel comfortable asking for any accommodation they need.

Christine: Add the feature into the description of the dish in a way that is not so “in your face.” For example, if someone needs a puréed dish, you could use that word in the description of the dish or use wards like “soft” or “carrot puree,” etc.

Me: Boston Children’s Hospital (my hospital of inspiration) has a huge proportion of patients and families who come from outside the US - one of the problems they often complain about is that the food is all bland, unfamiliar, and American, so menu diversity is an important focus for me. You talked about your Vietnamese heritage and how it has played into your cooking, so I was wondering if you have advice about integrating flavors and textures into a menu that may be unfamiliar to people?

Christine: This comes from education and balancing the menu so that it is at the same time familiar and conducive to introducing new flavors and cuisines. Employing chefs and cooks with different ethnic backgrounds will also increase diversity in an organic way.

Brand Exploration 🎨️

At this stage, I am beginning to develop a brand for the space
black and white logo exploration
first logo draft in color
current logo, featuring a plate surrounded on the edges by leaves and flowers, with the text 'the gathering plate' across the center

My intention for this brand is for it to strike a balance between adult vs. child and playful vs. sophisticated. I want the brand to reflect the values of locally sourced ingredients and sustainablility, while still being accessible to children. For these first drafts, I used icons from, as a proof of concept - for the final logo I will sketch by hand - but I added the color in a way that reflects somewhat of a "coloring book" feel.


Layout Exploration 🏗️

Initial thoughts on how the space could be arranged
Lights, Camera, Eat.

The kitchen, placed at the center of the room, is also the lowest point, allowing all diners to see what’s happening in the kitchen. The dining space is broken into levels, with a stair and a ramp allowing access between each. I envision there being two types of nights: (1) regular evenings where one can watch what’s happening in the kitchen throughout, (2) show evenings, where - with the kitchen in the center - the creation of food is put on as an event. This could be a cooking demonstration, a competition, or just a meal put together with flare.

A Culture of Accomodation

Many of the children who will be eating in this space require accommodation in order to enjoy a meal. Whether it be food allergies, nutritional supplements, or pureed food, these kids are used to feeling uncomfortable as they ask for changes to be made. In this space, the kitchen will be prepared for these requests, even anticipating them through reservations when possible, and accommodation will be the norm. No child will be made to feel an outlier for their dietary needs, as the diner will be put at the center of the experience.

sketch of the layout of the space, with the kitchen in the center with levels of tables surrounding it.
(1) Drinks Bar

A traditional-style bar, but with non-alcoholic drinks as the default. Sophisticated enough in styling and execution to be an exciting experience for the children, as opposed to a cliche (think Rainforest Cafe). The experience should engage kids in the exciting aspects of having a drink made - the shaking, stirring, choosing the ingredients. The bar is a fish tank.

(left) a trendy bartender, wearing a denim apron with leather straps. (right) a large fishtank
(2) Food Bar

Whether it be sushi, fruits carvings, or intricate plating, this bar provides some sort of food based experience that is visually exciting. This bar should provide variety and visual engagement, potentially even letting the children participate (adding a decoration to a plate, etc.). The Bar is a George Rhoads-style kinetic sculpture, set within a terrarium.

(left) a large terrarium of moss and branches. (right) A George Rhoads kinetic sclupture
(3) Small Tables

There are a number of small tables throughout the space, of varying sizes, that can accommodate 2 - 6 people. On show nights, tables will have fewer seats so that patrons can face towards the kitchen. These tables are intended to be reserved ahead of time, or for walk in parties. They can easily accommodate wheelchairs.

(4) Community Tables

In the space, there will be long, modular, community tables. The purpose of these tables is for anyone to join - whether it be parties looking to socialize, or individuals, these tables are a shared space for all. The tables can come apart into sections and can also be adjusted by height. Outside of food service, the tables can be used for cooking demonstrations.

3D Renderings

These 3D renderings being to demonstrate how the space would be laid out and utlized. These renderings will be transformed in a VR walkthrough.