Alison Negrin wanted to change the soup. And she succeeded. It took her three years.
On a Wednesday evening last November, the chef watched as hairnet-wearing kitchen workers ladled the new concoction, a brightly colored carrot-ginger purée, into thick plastic bowls on teal-colored trays. In a little while, the trays would make their way upstairs to about three hundred patients at John Muir Medical Center hospital in Walnut Creek.
Negrin is quick to admit the whole thing sounds crazy. A whopping 36 months to usher the simplest of soups, a recipe of half a dozen ingredients, from the lightbulb inside her head to the hard drive in the dieticians' office where it would be analyzed, edited, and tweaked ad infinitum and then at long last get printed out, sheathed in plastic, and filed in a spiral-ring binder that sits on a stainless-steel shelf in this crowded industrial kitchen.
For Negrin, it was nonetheless a triumph, and so what if many people she meets just don't get it. "When you're out in the world and people say, 'What do you do?' and I say, 'I'm the chef at John Muir,' they go, 'Oh, god, I was a patient there,'" she says. But Negrin's five years as a hospital chef have been in service of a mission: to change the profile of hospital food from bland, starchy, and processed to something reasonably close to actual, healthy food. Oh, and to help save the world in the process.
Long ago in another life, in a restaurant kitchen designed especially for her, Negrin could change the soup whenever she liked based on a whim, some herb she'd picked up in Chinatown, or perhaps a cookbook that made her itch with curiosity. That was long before the John Muir gig, back when she was one of the Bay Area's chefs to watch. One whom the San Francisco Chronicle would write about in that breathless style food critics reserve for an electric new talent.
On this fall evening, Negrin, now 54, lifts a lid to examine halibut baked over thinly sliced fennel. She walks next to the slow-moving conveyor belt that hospitals call the tray line, where each of half a dozen workers places a single item on the teal trays, looking more like factory workers than restaurant cooks. She tastes a broccoli floret. "This is supposed to have the flavoring reduction on it," she protests to no one in particular.
Negrin has a presence that transcends her five-foot height. She's dressed in a chef's jacket with black trim, a note of edgy in a kitchen humming with pale fluorescent lighting. She has wide, Mediterranean features (her father is Greek and Jewish), and eyes so large they look Coptic. She wears dangling silver craft-fair earrings, and sports a bob with fashionably streaky highlights. Artsy, even in middle age.
It was art that got Negrin hooked on food in the first place. After college, she had a degree in sculpture and no clue what to do with her life. Cooking school was her lesser of evils, except that she hated the structure and the old-school European chefs at San Francisco's California Culinary Academy. Ellen McCarty, who was one year behind her at the culinary academy, recalls that Negrin had an intimidating vibe. "Whatever she was doing would be impeccable," she says.
That reputation opened the door to a place that's still an elite finishing school for young phenoms: Chez Panisse. In 1988, Negrin was working the upstairs cafe line there when she got a call from a headhunter. The recruiter offered Negrin the title of executive chef in a restaurant that didn't yet exist, in a town she'd never heard of. It intrigued her, so Negrin leaped.
That town was Danville, and the restaurant was Bridges. Wealthy Japanese chemical executive Kazuo Sugitani was indulging a fantasy. He wanted a place that would be both an abstract showcase for Japanese aesthetics and a collage of French and Asian food styles. "I thought, okay, it's gonna be this bridge with East and West and I thought, I don't know: cliché," Negrin recalls. But creating Bridges proved to be anything but. For starters, Sugitani flew everyone to Japan Negrin, the restaurant's general manager, even the architect. "It was kind of like a fairy tale," she says.
In Tokyo they ate kaiseki, a meal of highly stylized small dishes that go with the tea ceremony. Negrin was in epiphany land. A year later in Danville, she was the one inspiring the epiphanies. The Chronicle's food critic deemed Bridges the kind of restaurant you'd find in Paris or New York.
But after years of success at Bridges and Ginger Island, a high-profile fusion bistro on Berkeley's Fourth Street, Negrin's inner art student began to question whether she wanted to be a fine-dining chef. After birthing a couple of restaurants, Negrin wanted to give birth to a kid except that she couldn't, so she adopted. Nurturing her baby son gave Negrin the urge to go on nurturing. She taught the ABCs of cooking to inner-city kids, did yoga at a meditation center above the fog line in West Marin, and studied at a New Age nutrition institute whose slogan was "healing from the ground up." Negrin steeped herself in Ayurveda, Chinese cures, and herbal remedy home brews the way she'd once steeped herself in beurre blanc and demiglace.
Negrin heard about the John Muir job from a neighbor. During the interview process, Sandi Rigney, the hospital's nutrition services director, said she'd want Negrin to make some improvements. It was a challenge that clicked with her sense of food as a healing force, and of the chef as a kind of shaman in a cook's jacket. A chance to redeem the cooking in a soulless high-rise packed with the weak and the vulnerable, where food had come to mean little more than mystery meat and Jell-O cups. Negrin, who'd taken blind leaps before, said yes.
She didn't know then just how blind this one would prove to be. As Bridges executive chef, Negrin harvested kaffir lime leaves from a garden planted just for her. She'd never worked in an institutional kitchen, never even seen the massive tilting sauté tables like the ones at John Muir. And she'd be overseeing not just one hospital kitchen, but three: the 320-bed Walnut Creek acute-care center, John Muir Health's 260-bed Concord hospital, and an 80-bed behavioral center in Brentwood. With a headful of ideas about what she calls the "spiritual-emotional" side of eating, Negrin suddenly had responsibility for kitchens that couldn't even afford prep cooks. In Concord, she'd have a union to contend with; in Walnut Creek, a kitchen where some workers' daily routines hadn't changed in two decades. These were places where Stouffer's lasagna on a patient menu represented a good night, and a welter of complex dietary restrictions favored food with zero flavor. Places where locked-in purchasing contracts meant patients ate the very same chicken breasts served to inmates of California prisons. In short, a culinary black hole.
Perhaps this time she'd leaped too fast.