Since last winter when Santana Diaz took the reins as executive chef at UC Davis Medical Center (UCDMC), he’s been coming up with local, fresh solutions through training staff on whole veggie butchering, rearranging logistics and purchasing, and testing new recipes for retail, catering and the patient side. As Diaz makes progress, the 6,500 meals served per day on average from UCDMC’s kitchen are getting more local and fresher tasting.
Diaz is parlaying his experience with big-volume food made from local produce from his days as chef at San Francisco 49ers’ Levi Stadium and the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Center. It was at Levi Stadium that he engineered the most farm-to-fork Super Bowl in history a few years ago. Here’s what he’s doing for more big wins, this time in the healthcare arena.
“I was asked to come on board by our executive leadership team with one objective: make it local, sustainable and taste great,” says UCDMC Executive Chef Santana Diaz.
“These are very exciting times, because we are creating long-term goals within this program to create a true foundationally strong platform that will not crumble after just a couple years, but could last for decades to come,” Diaz says.
Q: You spent a lot of time initially getting to know your staff (many of whom have been there for many years) when you first started. Why is it important to do that as a leader?
A: What I’ve discovered throughout my life in restaurant kitchens and the hospitality industry in general is that you must get in it and actually do the work with the team. I cannot expect—nor ever demand—someone to respect me just because of a title. Respect is earned by one’s daily practices, clear direction, continued positive leadership and follow-through.
Q: And being more hands-on also gave you a better idea of an operation that was new to you?
A: How can one truly know how long something takes to prepare if they haven’t done it themselves? This medical center venue is unique ,yet still reveals universal opportunities I’ve encountered all over our culinary industry. Redirection of a program of this magnitude takes more than just walking in with recipes and saying, “All right—done!” It’s far more complicated than that, especially with long-term staff.
Q: How has that been going?
A: Most of the team is not only supportive, they’re excited. And best of all, they’re saying they’re proud to stand behind the line and serve these new dishes that truly highlight seasonal and local fare. Nothing beats developing positive morale and promoting a positive work environment based on honesty and accountability.
Q: It seems like you’re on your way to transitioning to a much more farm-to-fork, plant-forward way of eating. I’m surprised it wasn’t more produce-oriented before, since UC Davis is known as a big ag school. Is it not that simple?
A: Let’s be honest. Most businesses truly focus on costs and the bottom line. Not that this should ever be ignored, but at times a business may inadvertently go down a path solely based on numbers that, in our case, has affected the end food product. Quality is often sacrificed with premade food stuffs that are reheated and then served. Although we all may be OK with microwaves in our homes and reheating leftovers from last night’s dinners, it is not what the future food program of UC Davis Health will look like.
Logistics of getting produce grown on the UC Davis campus in Davis to our Sacramento medical center facility is being worked out via a local produce company, Produce Express. Although the facilities are only just over 17 miles apart, the logistics behind packaging, storage and delivery schedules play a big role in how you can get a summer squash from point A to point B. Our farm-to-fork approach is already being felt and appreciated by local farmers of our region. The push to truly introduce whole foods/plant-based foods not only makes sense in our setting, but is being “introduced” at the right time.
Technology in this day and age presents all types of information readily available at one another’s fingertips. People are reading food labels and educating themselves more about what they are putting into their bodies. The time is now for our hospital to be able to simply provide clean-labeled, local and seasonal and “healthier” foods to our patients, staff and visitors.
Q: What are some obstacles in the way of really fresh food in this setting?
A: Staffing, equipment and execution always come to mind in large-format settings. When preparing quantities of food in the volume that our team produces every day, we must try to take into consideration our spaces. Do we have enough staff to consider the hours of prep it takes to accomplish a true farm-to-fork program? Can our equipment handle the new menus? Will our team be able to sustain the new food program direction? The answer may not be so easy. Ultimately it comes down to training and really focusing the menus on what our existing equipment can produce and the skills of our team. It does not matter if a chef writes a three-Michelin-star menu if the kitchen does not have the equipment to execute said sauces/menu items, nor if the culinary team is not trained on the cooking methods. I always need to be realistic about what we are trying to do here. I know that we will never have a white tablecloth dining room, and that is not the goal. The goal is to serve good food and provide a quality end product to anyone eating here at our medical center.
Q: What were some low-hanging fruit easier, changes that you were able to make right away toward that direction?
A: Switching the produce from a broad liner vendor to a local vendor that was already approved with the medical center was the easiest move. The challenge within that move was training the staff on how they ordered and whom they ordered from. The simple things like different sized boxes and pack sizes from different farmers was a bit of a struggle when comparing it to the cookie-cutter model that the team was used to, but we are all moving in the same direction now.
Q: In terms of training the staff to work with more whole ingredients, what has that process been like?
A: We are addressing this every day. A common practice that the culinary team is realizing is that I always bring in the product in a whole state/unprocessed so that they learn how to complete a recipe from prep to finish. We then evaluate the time that it took to actually prepare the menu item and then look to reduce the labor cost production of said item.
Q: For example?
A: One of the first salads we started with: spinach/butternut squash/parsnip/farro winter salad with pomegranate vinaigrette. Much of the team had never seen a whole parsnip due to the fact that they have always had all of the vegetables come into the facility precut. The team was able to learn about ingredients from a raw state, experience how long it took to prepare the ingredients and see it through to the end when the guest enjoyed and verbally complimented the cook during service on how nice the salad looked and tasted. We cannot process everything from a raw state. We must have some produce items come into us precut, but I can control where the produce comes from.
Q: What’s the dominant world cuisine in the hospital?
A: I can’t say that there is one dominant cuisine in this hospital. We offer housemade curries, Mediterranean-inspired dishes, Thai flavor profiles, Latin-inspired dishes and, of course, an all-American grass-fed beef burger.
Q: What have been some of your favorite new dishes that you’ve implemented…you start testing with catering, right?
A: Although catering has been a great opportunity for learning what our kitchen equipment can handle, the first farm-to-fork patient menu item looks like it will be the result of a local vegan burger challenge that we were asked to participate in. Sacramento is participating in a citywide competition for the month of June where our UCDMC culinary team created an housemade vegan burger patty made from locally sourced rice, combining a housemade black bean vinaigrette, roasted red pepper puree, sautéed local mushrooms from Colusa and garbanzo bean flour to bind the patty, arugula and housemade chipotle-spiced pickles (greens and cucumbers from Del Rio Botanicals in West Sacramento), preserved tomatoes and a balsamic reduction all on a local, no-preservative vegan ciabatta bun from Le Boulanger Bakery. Midway through the month of June we had already sold over 600 “Battle Burgers.”
After our senior dietician and nutritionists reviewed the nutritional value of our competition burger and compared it to the premade garden burger that we currently purchased, we found that our housemade product tasted better, was gluten sensitive (without the bun/no gluten in the recipe), was actually vegan whereas the garden burger had cheese, and ultimately followed the future direction of our food and nutrition services food program. Our anticipation is that this competition burger indeed becomes the first patient care menu item.
Q: What are a few more changes you hope to make this year at the hospital? In five years?
A: I cannot let up on the push of this local and sustainable program that is being directed and supported from our executive leadership of our hospital. Without their support, leadership and direction, I would not be here, nor would any of this be possible. That being said, this program will take a solid year to get into place and then will continue to evolve with the seasons. A true food program with forecasting to help our farmers and ranchers know what our needs are eight to 10 months in advance and hopefully a full year in advance so that we may assist with lowering the risk to said farmer of “if” their product will sell and making it more definite for them. The ability to provide stability for our farming and ranching community by using the ongoing production of the hospital as an anchor is the future.