Chef Santana Diaz: Bridging Good Health and Fine Flavors

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Chef Santana Diaz
Chef Santana Diaz of UC Davis Health (UC Davis/Wayne Tilcock)

The details of the dinner would be daunting enough for most chefs. Picture nearly 850 attendees seated in the middle of a bridge that’s closed to traffic. And many of these diners, who feast on the freshest of local ingredients, are a discerning bunch. They are civic officials, local movers-and-shakers and leaders in the area’s restaurant and agricultural worlds, and foodies who’ve paid $250 each for a highly coveted reservation.

Such was the setting Sept. 12 at the eighth annual Tower Bridge Dinner, which featured an all-star crew of chefs preparing the area’s highest-profile meal of the year. The dinner is a hallmark of Sacramento’s multiday Farm-To-Fork Festival, which includes a “Legends of Wine” event at the Capitol and two-day public festival on the Capitol Mall attended by thousands.

Why a hospital chef?

Back on the Tower Bridge, which links Sacramento and Yolo counties, chef Santana Diaz assumed his role as a leader among local culinary leaders. Diaz, who serves as the executive chef for UC Davis Health, was named in June as the lead chef for the Tower Bridge Dinner.

Some might wonder why a hospital chef was overseeing the likes of Billy Ngo, the celebrated Sacramento sushi chef, and Dane Blom from the Michelin-lauded Grange restaurant. But Diaz’s food program at UC Davis Health is hardly a menu of mystery meats and mushy vegetables.

Diaz has earned national accolades for his “farm-to-fork”-styled hospital food service that highlights fresh, local produce and sustainable ingredients. Think: “Flavor-bombed” tofu tacos and spicy kale with white bean ragout.

Plus, Diaz is no stranger to cooking for large crowds. He previously served as the lead chef for Super Bowl 50 and is the former executive chef at the Golden One Center, the home of the Sacramento Kings.

He jumped at the chance when he was offered the Tower Bridge Dinner lead chef role.

“It was exciting,” said Diaz about the opportunity. “As a hospital chef, I wasn’t expecting this. So I took a look at the chefs that are continuing to make a difference and support the farm-to-fork ethos, and who are creating some cool flair this year. Where else can you have an educational opportunity using food as a vehicle, that good food can be healthy?”

Chef Santana Diaz oversaw a meal for more than 800 on the Tower Bridge
Chef Santana Diaz shares a laugh in the rush of the Tower Bridge Dinner, a signature event of Sacramento's "Farm-To-Fork Festival." (Wayne Tilcock/UC Davis)

Speaking of hospital food

The motto of “good food is good medicine” guides Diaz’s approach at UC Davis Health. By working with local farms and purveyors, and consulting with hospital dieticians and nutritionists, the creations at the kitchens at UC Davis Health are as nourishing as they are tasty. It’s the rare hospital food that makes you want to savor the aromas instead of hold your nose. Take-away recipe cards are even provided for many of the items.

“I have all these opportunities to show someone that hospital food doesn’t have to be bland, tasteless and colorless,” Diaz said. “It can be pretty and taste good, and here are some recipes to take home.”

It’s also a massive operation. Diaz leads a staff of more than 160 at UC Davis Health that produces more than 6,500 meals on an average day. The main kitchen, at 14,400 square feet, is the largest production kitchen in Sacramento.

The sincerest form of flattery

Given his ability to feed people on a large scale, Mike Testa knew that Diaz was the perfect chef to lead the Tower Bridge Dinner. Testa is the president and CEO of Visit Sacramento, which organizes the Tower Bridge Dinner and “Farm-To-Fork Festival.”

Plus, the emphasis on health was a perfect theme for the table, especially in these pandemic times.

“One of biggest appeals was that he’s creating a culinary platform in a hospital that should be replicated across the country,” Testa said. “What he’s doing at UC Davis is groundbreaking. It’s rather shocking that nobody was doing this (farm-to-fork approach) until Santana came along.”

Still, running a hospital food operation wasn’t part of Diaz’s early career goals. He is a native of Yuba City whose initial foray into the food world started by working at a grocery store deli. Diaz received his culinary arts degree from the Art Institute of California in Sacramento, and like most young cooks, dreamed of becoming the next Thomas Keller or Gordon Ramsay. His early résumé included cooking stints at such area favorites as The Firehouse in Old Sacramento and Taste in Plymouth.

‘I didn’t know anything about hospitals’

Diaz climbed the career ladder through cooking in hotels around California and serving as executive sous chef at Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco. In 2016, he was named as the executive chef at Sacramento Golden 1 Center, an arena that sources 90 percent of its food ingredients from a 150-mile radius.

When the opportunity arose to lead UC Davis Health’s food operations, Santana knew he could take the farm-to-fork ethos even further.

“I didn’t know anything about hospitals, I was actually kind of afraid of them,” Santana said. “It came down to what I learned in part of my life’s work. I can apply what I’ve known through all those large-scale venues to do something good versus just trying to charge more for a burger.”

Patrick Mulvaney, a figurehead of Sacramento’s farm-to-fork movement, knew Diaz was the right chef for the job.

“The opportunity here to change not only lives but the food system is immense,” Mulvaney said. “He has the taste for it, but also the spine and fortitude to make it happen. I think of how his work at UC Davis brings the hospital into the public eye, so people can relate to the good work that UC Davis does every day.”

Diaz and his UC Davis Health team have since earned national accolades since he was named executive chef in 2017. In 2019, the UC Davis Medical Center became the first hospital in the country to be named a “Smart Catch Leader” by the esteemed James Beard Foundation. The designation is given to food establishments for their culinary excellence and commitment to serving seafood that’s fished or farmed in environmentally responsible ways.

‘Good food can be good medicine’

His commitment to local sourcing continues to grow. Since arriving at UC Davis Health, the hospital had gone from using 16% local and sustainable ingredients to 41% now.

Diaz hopes that his approach can serve as a role model for hospitals around the country. He’s connecting with other hospital chefs and recently testified in a Congressional committee on the topic of “food as medicine” to support healthy communities.

“I’ve been collaborating (with chefs) as far as Portland, Maine to incorporate this kind of source transparency within other health care programs and see how we can apply them to hospital settings,” Diaz said. “This approach is duplicable, but will it look exactly the same everywhere? No. But there’s a proof of concept that good food can be good medicine and impart good behaviors in the home.”

Chef Santana Diaz mingles with Chancellor Gary May and LeShelle May
Chef Santana Diaz meets with Chancellor Gary May and LeShelle May near a painting that honors the chef. (Wayne Tilcock/UC Davis)

Supporting farmers and ranchers

But first, it was back to the Tower Bridge where the menu included fruit gastriques, Asian-styled trout and a duo of beef — all with a local and seasonal flair. The days leading up to the dinner were packed for Diaz, with duties that included writing lists of ingredients that needed to be prepped, keeping track of orders and fine tuning the service plans.

And then it was back to UC Davis Health, where thousands more meals would need to be created in the following days. His mission of merging farm-to-fork within a health care settings moves ever forward — and with plenty of flavor.

“A hospital has more of a sustained buying power than any sports arena or stadium,” Diaz said. “A lot of people forget that 70,000 sounds like a lot of people, but there’s maybe only 10 home games a year plus concerts and things. Knowing that I could support the farmers and ranchers and have the ability to create more change is why I came here.”

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Chris Macias is a speechwriter in the Office of Strategic Communications and can be reached by e-mail at cjmacias@ucdavis.edu.

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