Food & Drink

Hospital food gets a farm-to-fork makeover from UC Davis Medical Center's new chef

‘Good food is good medicine.’ Meet UCD Med Center’s new chef

UC Davis Medical Center’s café has a new executive chef, Santana Diaz, who has started to incorporate the farm-to-fork moment into the hospital's meals for visitors and patients.
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UC Davis Medical Center’s café has a new executive chef, Santana Diaz, who has started to incorporate the farm-to-fork moment into the hospital's meals for visitors and patients.

Chef Santana Diaz has an ambitious plan to bring farm-to-fork cooking to the UC Davis Medical Center, in the same way he did at the San Francisco 49ers' Levi's Stadium and the Sacramento Kings' Golden 1 Center.

Diaz joined the UC Davis Health team seven months ago as executive chef after holding that title at Golden 1 Center since April 2016. A Yuba City native, Diaz said he was able to produce 65 percent of the food at Levi's Stadium with locally sourced ingredients.

"For Super Bowl 50 a few years back, I was head chef for that, and I was able to make it the most farm-to-fork Super Bowl in history," Diaz said. "When I came back to Sacramento area, I was able to connect with even more farmers and ranchers with the Golden 1 Center project."

Michael Tuohy, then-chef at Golden 1 Center, brought Diaz to Sacramento just two months after the NFL championship game, and Diaz was able to source 90 percent of ingredients within a 150-mile radius of Golden 1. He now takes on the challenge of completing a similar transformation at UC Davis Medical Center, a campus where he said 6,500 meals are served a day on average.

"UC Davis was trying to turn over a new leaf, if you will, with their food program," said Diaz, who got his culinary arts degree at the Art Institute of California's Sacramento campus in Natomas. "So we started talking about how we could maybe look at this large operation, which is the largest production kitchen in operation in our county, and make food more healthy for patients. It just makes sense. It’s a hospital setting, so why not start with raw ingredients, clean food, less processing?"

The change is gargantuan and will take at least a year to accomplish, but he got the effort underway in his second week on the job. He started with what would become a daily value meal, a kind of chef's special, for the campus's catered events. He had options: meals with animal protein, plant-based meals, foods for gluten-sensitive diets.

As he introduced recipes, he worked on the line with cooks and other kitchen staff to train them and get to know them. His days start early and end late in the evening, said Diaz, who began to develop his farm-to-fork strategy while working at Hyatt Regency and Omni hotels.

The catering side of the medical center operation was the test ground for the recipes Diaz would eventually start putting into the health system's food-service software program, which measures such things as calories, sodium levels and more. He now has a quarter of his recipes in that system.

"You can’t flip a program of this magnitude immediately," said Diaz, 39. "There’s so much training involved, and also a hospital is so different from a regular hotel or restaurant. We have diets that we adhere to here – 44-plus diets – and there are doctors and surgeons and nurses that write diets for patients. It is a different market. We’re in the business of healing people."

A major part of this effort for Diaz has been establishing the trust with his team, a number of whom have been working in UC Davis' food-service system for 20 or 30 years.

"I’m a very big team player, so I work with the team," he said. "I’ve been teaching them how to cook various things…I purchase produce in the raw stage, and things have to be added to it. We’re having to change our cooking methods. They’re learning new cooking methods, and it’s boosted their morale. They have pride in what they’re cooking and what they’re learning. It’s quite captivating to see it. It’s changing the culture of our food service staff. They’re really engaged."

On a recent day, Diaz said, his team used 560 pounds of Delta asparagus, 200 pounds of button mushrooms from Colusa, 120 pounds of Persian cucumbers and 200 pounds of pea shoots from West Sacramento, and 160 pounds of strawberries from Watsonville. That's just one day, he said, in a program that hasn't rolled out to patients yet.

Diaz said he saw at Golden 1 what a farm-to-fork program can do for local producers. He created a barbecue recipe that used honey from Suzanne Peabody Ashworth's Del Rio Botanical in West Sacramento. Diaz said Golden 1 quickly used up the farm's supply and had to go to another vendor. Ashworth said her business saw a 10 percent increase in sales when Golden 1 came online.

Scott Rose, a sales representative at Produce Express, the wholesale distributor that supplies many restaurants and commercial kitchens in the region, said he expects that, when the UC Davis Medical Center has converted, it will have four times the impact that the Golden 1 operation did when it came online.

Diaz has started offering his fare for retail sale in the rotisserie section of the hospital's cafeteria, he said, and by the end of the month, his team will be serving up farm-to-fork fare Monday through Friday in that area.

Just before Diaz joined UC Davis Medical Center, he said, the concessionaire at Golden 1 had approached him about undertaking a farm-to-fork transformation at another sports venue in Southern California. But restaurateur and chef Patrick Mulvaney of Mulvaney's B&L in Sacramento knew Diaz didn't really want to leave a region where he'd grown up as a boy and as a chef.

Before going to the Bay Area, Diaz had worked under the instruction of the Maloof family's classically trained French chef, Christophe Cornet, and with the Firehouse restaurant's executive chef, Deneb Williams, who now runs Allora and Woodlake Tavern. After talking with Diaz, Mulvaney introduced him to UCD leaders.

"I said I would only come here if I could make this program a farm-to-fork, sustainable local program," Diaz said. "Hospital food has a stigma….It doesn’t have the best reputation….If I was going to make the move and just produce hospital food, then it would be culinary suicide for a chef. People would say, 'You’re going over to make hospital food? Well, good luck, Santana.' From the get-go when I stepped foot in these doors seven months ago, it was always that message that we were going to move in this direction."