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Traveller, Teacher, Artist, Student...and Chef

Traveller, Teacher, Artist, Student...and Chef

Having been executive chef at such noted Bay Area restaurants as Chez Panisse, Bridges and Ginger Island, Alison Negrin has seen some of the summits of the commercial foodservice world. But she is now very happy serving as executive chef at John Muir/Mt. Diablo Health System in Concord, CA

Negrin’s duties at Mt. Diablo encompass patient meals, retail dining and catering. She oversees the cafeteria and catering operations for all three of the system’s campuses, and is also responsible for writing both patient and cafeteria menus, as well as developing the dishes and menus for the various upscale catered events hosted by the hospital system.

A 1981 graduate of the California Culinary Academy, Negrin has travelled extensively, from Asia to Europe, been a teacher for disadvantaged culinary aspirants, and worked in some of the Bay Area’s most prestigious restaurants.

Like many commercial chefs, she migrated to noncommercial foodservice in order to have more time for herself and her family, but she also chose the healthcare segment out of a growing interest in nutritional issues. Along with her operational responsibilities, she teaches classes on how to prepare healthful dishes for the hospital system’s Women’s Health Center.

Were you always interested in cooking and food? I remember as a little girl watching my granny cook traditional Greek dishes. She would do everything from scratch and was very focused. As I grew up I would help my mother in the kitchen and eventually I was cooking whole dinners. However, my focus in college was art and photography. It was only when I came back to the United States after living in Denmark that I attended culinary school.

Denmark was only one of your many international stops.Where else have you been? I’ve been to Greece, which is the land of my ancestry, and to Asia several times, mostly in Japan and Thailand. I have a strong interest in Thai cooking. As someone who studied art in college, I’m also drawn to the minimalism and simplicity of Japanese cooking.

How did you get into Chez Panisse? I had to cook for Alice Waters and her staff. I had just gotten back from Thailand so I decided to do a fusion thing. I did a kind of frisee salad, but instead of using the traditional lardonne and poached egg I did an Asian twist with Chinese barbecued pork, quail egg and Chinese mustard vinaigrette. I also made a salt-baked poisson with chili-fried rice and, for dessert, a ginger sabayon.

Why did you leave? I went in intending to stay only for a year to get the experience in a place where they were doing all of these wonderful creative things and money was no object. It was a wonderful experience, but I was on the production team, whereas before I had already managed kitchens. As it turns out, just about a year later I got a call asking if I wanted to interview for the position of executive chef at Bridges.

Obviously, you got the job. Yes, and that also was a great experience because I was hired about a year before they opened, so I got to work with the design team, hire the manager and oversee everything from the ground up. I also got a chance to visit Japan with the owner, who’s a wealthy Japanese businessman.

How long were you with Bridges? For about three years. After my son was born, I had to try juggling being a mom while working 12-hour days. After about a year I realized it wasn’t working. I worked for a catering company for a couple years and then decided to give restaurant life one more try with Ginger Island, where I was asked to expand the menu. But again, time commitments were very difficult, even though they offered to cut back my hours. I left after a year and took a job teaching with Treasure Island Job Corp., a culinary school for disadvantaged young people.

That sounds really cool. It was. I was teaching formal culinary courses to young adults—19 to 21-year olds, mostly—to prepare them for careers in the food industry. You really felt like you were making a difference there, but I missed cooking. So I left and went to work for a gourmet foods company called Poulet for about five years. While there I became very interested in nutrition and the healthful aspects of different foods. That led to my job at Mt. Diablo, where I saw an opportunity to use some of what I’d learned.

You’ve experienced a wide range of culinary traditions.What are you interested in these days? Recently I’ve become quite interested in Mediterranian cooking, especially Lebanese cuisine. I suppose its partly my Greek heritage, because the dishes are very similar. I would love to travel across the Mediterranian and experience the different food traditions, from Spain at one end to Lebanon and Israel at the other end.

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