As she enters the kitchen of the Vista Café at John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, Alison Negrin casually touches base with staff members who are doing prep work. Her manner is calm with none of the bluster often associated with the title “Executive Chef.” The day’s menu includes lamb stew (made with onions, carrots, parsnips, allspice and cinnamon), tarragon roasted game hens, and roasted asparagus—pretty fancy fare for a hospital cafeteria, which serves over 1,000 people a day.
“I like the process of cooking and how the ingredients build to become something new,” says Negrin. Cooking has always been a creative outlet for the petite chef, who originally studied sculpture at UC Berkeley before heading into the kitchen. “I’m in tune with the seasonality of food—using veggies and fruit in season and understanding the impact of the time of year and weather on what is comforting to eat.” She loves to explore new cultural flavor profiles and carefully researches what spices are used and how the food is cooked and presented.
When Negrin joined John Muir Health in 2002, the concept of having a chef in a hospital was innovative. By then Negrin had twenty years in the business and a significant culinary pedigree including stints at Chez Panisse and Poulet in Berkeley, and as founding chef at Bridges Restaurant & Bar in Danville. She had become interested in the idea of healing with food and taken classes in holistic nutrition, so the move from the restaurant world to the hospital ward was somewhat of a natural transition. Hospital food typically gets a bad rap, and Negrin has spent her time at John Muir Health changing that image. Her vision is simple — serve fresh food that looks good and tastes great.
While chefs reign supreme in TV’s reality kitchens, Negrin is anything but a culinary dictator. She is part of collaborative health care team, which includes several clinical dietitians, who work together to create appetizing menus for the wide range of dietary needs and desires of the patients, staff, and visitors on John Muir Health’s Walnut Creek and Concord campuses.
“We really are a group of foodies,” says Negrin. “We’re constantly brainstorming ways to change up the menu to make it more interesting but also address the health factors.”