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Freedom, happiness found in NYHQ kitchen

It is there in the basement that Clai Rocha, the head chef who has not missed a day of work in 22 years, leads a cooking team that designs meals for patients who cannot eat sugar, salt, solid foods or meat, to name just a few of their dietary restrictions.

"I feel great because I'm helping the patients, I'm part of the healing, I feel like a doctor," Rocha said. "I have not taken a sick day in the 22 years since I have been working here because I personally do not believe in sickness. I believe in wellness."

Rocha was named Employee of the Month for May at New York Hospital Queens, an institution that has seven chefs for the nearly 2,500 workers in the 439-bed facility.

His start in cooking came when he was 22, fleeing the heavy-handed government in Brazil.

"You couldn't read a book...the government printed a slogan on the newspaper, 'Love or Leave,' so I left," he said. "I took a knapsack and got on boats."

Those boats were cruise ships, which he took around the world, seeking kitchens jobs in countries ranging from Fiji to New Zealand to Tahiti to Hong Kong.

"Some countries I'd stay until my visa expired, then I'd jump on the boat," Rocha said.

About 26 years ago, he landed in Queens where he met Flushing Rotary Club members Kurt Weishaupt and Murray Seigel (who sponsored him for his citizenship while he worked as a personal and party chef for them.

He started working at the hospital a few years after he came to Queens and has been on his feet in the kitchen ever since.

He attributes never missing a day of work to his practice of Tai Chi, the Chinese meditative exercise he does every morning at 4 a.m.

"It's like a disease - I can't stop," he said. With an empty stomach he practices Tai Chi before walking the three miles to the hospital in the morning to arrive at 5:20 a.m.

"I don't sit," he said. "They call me a bionic man."

After work he walks an hour home, where he reads in the afternoons while waiting for his wife to come home from work so he can cook dinner for her.

Josefina Phillips, the nutritional services manager, said Rocha is a dedicated, amicable worker who makes the kitchen a pleasant place to be.

"We all love him," she said. "He's very pleasant and gets along with everybody here. He's very concerned about the patient care and that's very important."

As she spoke, Rocha stirred a tofu and broccoli dish while assistant chefs assembled 400 lunch trays on a conveyor belt.

Rocha pointed out the Asian menu, which offered a selection of meals from Indian, Korean and Chinese cuisines, in addition to the specialty lunches for patients suffering from diabetes, kidney or cardiovascular diseases.

"When I cook, I put all my energy, I put all my heart," he said. "I pray to God they get well and go home."

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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