How UC Davis Health's Santana Diaz transformed hospital food – Sacramento Business Journal – The Business Journals

He’s a classically trained chef who cut his teeth in the industry working in fine dining and under the personal chef for the Maloof family. Now he’s making hospital food.
Santana Diaz is as surprised as anyone at the turn his career has taken.
“When we think about hospitals in general and hospital food specifically, I don’t think that any quote-unquote chef is really thinking that it’s an exciting opportunity to be a part of, myself included,” Diaz said. “I never thought I’d be in a hospital.”
But since he stepped into the role of executive chef at UC Davis Medical Center four years ago, Diaz has gotten to work redefining what hospital food means.
Now, the hospital has won accolades from the James Beard Foundation, and hospitals from around the country are looking to copy the model.
The transformation came from making more food in-house, with fresh, sustainable ingredients sourced from local producers as much as possible.
Within 18 months of his hiring, the food program went from 16% of its food spending coming from local sources to 40%. Now, during the summer harvest season, as much as 70% of the food in the hospital comes from local producers.
The transformation has involved going back to basics — instead of serving a fruit cup, one that likely came in a plastic container and is made with imported fruit soaking in sugar water, now they’ll serve a slice of melon from a local farmer.
“It seems so simple, but we’ve gotten away from simple and complicated it a bit more than I think it needed to be,” Diaz said.
Diaz has been eating fresh, local, seasonal food since long before the movement got popular.
“Growing up, my family was involved with farms,” Diaz said. “I’m the first generation born here. And my family in Mexico, they had ranches, hog, cattle and other farming.”
Growing up in Yuba City, his family worked in the fields.
“I’d grown up with all this fresh fruit all the time, and different vegetables, whatever it was in season,” he said. “Eating with grandma and my mom, that was always instilled in me.”
Now, his work helps keep the Sacramento region’s agricultural heritage alive.
“We can provide such a stable, forecasted volume to every farmer and rancher about what our needs are going to be next year for, say, asparagus next spring,” Diaz said. “That way that farmer has the ability to minimize the risk of how much crop he or she needs to grow.”
That’s why big, high-volume, year-round institutions like hospitals and schools could be major influences in the local food system. But so far, it’s mostly smaller-volume buyers like restaurants that have embraced farm-to-fork.
Diaz has started to move the needle on that — he led the team that designed the food program for Golden 1 Center, which sources 90% of its ingredients from within 150 miles of the arena.
Before that he was an executive sous chef at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, where he designed and executed the food program for the 50th Super Bowl.
He thought he was going to keep working for stadiums — after he finished opening Golden 1 Center, he got another offer to set up the food program for what is now Banc of California Stadium, home of Major League Soccer team Los Angeles FC.
“I didn’t really want to leave Sacramento, but at the same time, work was calling me,” he said.
Unbeknownst to him, however, he was about to get an opportunity at UC Davis Health.
“Our chief administrative officer, Brad Simmons, had a vision and inquired with the local farm-to-fork godfather, if you will, Mr. Patrick Mulvaney,” Diaz said.
Local chef and restaurateur Mulvaney worked with Diaz when Mulvaney was setting up his concession stand in Golden 1 Center. And Simmons went to Mulvaney with his idea to transform his hospital’s food program.
“Nobody wants to be in the hospital for any reason,” Simmons said. “But if you’re going to be in the hospital, at least the food should be good.”
But scaling up the farm-to-fork concept to the size of a hospital was a daunting undertaking.
“I said, Patrick, who in the world can pull this off?” Simmons said. “And he said, you’ve got to call Santana Diaz.”
When Simmons pitched his idea, Diaz was intrigued by the chance to create a new, farm-to-fork, health-focused model for hospital food.
“In that first conversation with him, I said, well you have to be mindful that if it was cheap and easy, everyone would do it,” Diaz said. “But everybody’s already doing the cheap and easy thing, which is proving that maybe we should be looking at a different model.”
Simmons was fully on board.
“He’s a very engaging chef, and he’s fun to be around,” Simmons said. “He’s very excited, has 1,000 ideas, and I just let him run with it.”
Now, Simmons said patients don’t want to leave the hospital because the food is so good. He said Diaz has done more with the program than he ever imagined.
“He’s built a tremendous team here of great chefs from around the region,” Simmons said. “He’s been a tremendous success.”
But it didn’t happen overnight, and it didn’t come easy.
“I think a lot of the challenges that hospitals face today are based on the fact that they never close,” Diaz said.
The hospital serves an average of 6,500 meals per day, every day, and is in the process of expanding. Between UC Davis’ new Aggie Square project and the hospital’s new California Tower, Diaz is in the middle of designing six new food facilities for UC Davis, which could double that production.
“In sports or even hotels you can have a lot of events going on, or you have a series of games that happen,” Diaz said. “But then eventually there’s nothing, and you can give yourself the opportunity to reset and regroup with your team.”
At the hospital, however, it doesn’t stop.
“It’s really always tough to just pull cooks off the line and have a meeting, because our operation is open 21 out of the 24 hours a day,” he said.
But, Diaz said, communicating with his team has been one of the most important, and challenging, factors in transforming the food program.
“If the people that you’re trying to redirect don’t understand the why, then it’s very difficult for you to get their buy-in,” Diaz said.
“This program is more work. It’s more work to make things from scratch versus just opening up a container and dumping it into some sauce,” he said. “So we have to make sure that everybody is on board from the start, from the get-go.”
The kitchen can’t run without the 200-plus-person team behind it, Diaz said.
“Nothing happens without a team. I’m only one person, and it’s this team that has come together over the last 4 1/2 years that have made this possible,” he said. “I’m leading this charge and making sure things are happening, and pointing this in a direction, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t have the buy-in from the team — 6,500 meals a day don’t get done by one person.”
The Essentials
Santana Diaz
Director of culinary operations and innovation/executive chef, UC Davis Health
Career highlights: Executive chef at Golden 1 Center; executive sous chef at Levi’s Stadium; executive sous chef at Omni Hotels in San Francisco; worked under Christophe Cornet, personal chef for the Maloof family, and Deneb Williams, then-executive chef for the Firehouse restaurant.
Favorite dish the hospital serves: Mediterranean chicken
The Sacramento Region Innovation Awards recognize the area’s vibrant innovation community, from emerging to established companies, and their breakthrough creations.
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