America’s next top hospital chef

Noriel San Pedro on plant-forward menus, serving comfort in COVID-19 times, and new twists on traditional meals

The winner

This dish represents San Pedro’s version of his beloved childhood meal — but with a plant-forward focus. The earthiness of the sauce provided by mushrooms, firm texture of the tofu, and the combination of sweet and spicy atchara (pickled papaya) work together to awaken your palate. In his salute to this Filipino favorite, San Pedro brings together the best that Northern California has to offer, like handcrafted locally made Hodo organic tofu.

There were two major themes in the 2020 Health Care Culinary Contest: putting a plant-forward twist on a traditional favorite and perseverance. Our winner, Chef Noriel San Pedro at Stanford Health Care in California embodies these themes to his core.

San Pedro’s accomplishment will be celebrated in two upcoming virtual conferences, the Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change Leadership Summit, June 22-24, and CleanMed Connect, May 18-20 — the only virtual experience that connects you with experts and peers at the forefront of health care and sustainability.

This was Stanford Health Care’s second entry into the contest. Their recipe, spaghetti with a twist, was a finalist in 2019.

The finalists

Hospital chefs from across the country persevered to cook and serve healthy food when our patients and communities needed it the most.

The 2020 Health Care Culinary Contest kicked off in October, challenging hospital chefs to embrace the #PlantForwardFuture with their own original creations.

Five recipes rose to the top, including the San Pedro’s and four finalists. Download their recipes here:

In February, judges from the Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s Bronson Culinary Program in Michigan put the top five recipes to the test. The judging team included chefs and students.

The recipes were judged for flavor (compilation and balance of ingredients) and how the recipe appealed to the senses. The judges also considered aspects important to health care food service, like ease of execution, availability of ingredients, and nutritional and taste appropriateness for patients and patrons.

Meet the winning chef and his team

“Always cook with your heart and your intention and love will show in the food you cook.” — Noriel San Pedro

Born, raised, and immersed in the culture of the Philippines, San Pedro first came to the United States in 2015, where he and his wife, Rosa, both held positions at Texas Tech Medical Center. Three years later, San Pedro and his wife found themselves packing up and moving to Palo Alto, Calif., for new roles within the health care sector. Currently, San Pedro proudly serves as a production supervisor for food services at Stanford Health Care. A food service veteran with over 10 years in the industry, San Pedro brings with him the experience of the Filipino food scene, focused on bold spices, flavors, and influences that evoke the simplicity of food which nourishes the body and soul.

To celebrate our winner and introduce him and his amazing recipe to our network, we sat down with San Pedro and his team: Jodi Krefetz, director of food services; Stephen Sonke, senior manager of food services; and Steven K. Olesen, director of retail experience.

Why did you choose to become a chef? Why a hospital chef?

“I pray for my food. I want it to be delicious and every time the patients eat it, the pain goes away at least for a little while.” — Noriel San Pedro

San Pedro: I grew up in a small town in the Philippines. I had five siblings and was the only boy. I’m second to the oldest and every time my mom cooked, I was always watching her. I was very curious. I asked her questions, like “What’s your process?” and “Why these ingredients?”

In addition to caring for our family, my mom worked on our small farm. She planted fruits and vegetables like okra, squash, and papaya. We were surrounded by vegetables. We also raised some chickens. Filipino adobo is a traditional meal usually cooked with chicken. Because we raised chickens, we had the ingredients to make this meal from our land. Making this dish with my mom was one of my inspirations to become a chef.

When I was in the Philippines in college, I had a part-time job as a cook at the local version of McDonald’s, called Jollibee. In this job and my next job working at a hotel kitchen, I was very observant and asked plenty of questions. The hotel’s beautiful presentations inspired me to become a chef. The food was delicious, and I was amazed every time, especially by the plating.

My experience in the kitchen helped me get a job at the University of Texas in Lubbock. I continued to learn from the chefs there and one of the chefs became my mentor. He said I had potential and taught me the skills needed to be successful in the industry.

Since I started working in the hospital, I take my job as a chef very seriously. I’m serving the patients and customers in the cafeteria too. I add love every time I cook. I remember what it’s like to be a patient. I always pray and do my best to make sure that the food that is given to them is healing. So, I pray for my food. I want it to be delicious every time they eat it. I act like my family is a patient here. The foods I serve are nutritious and fit within a good diet. The meals take into account portion size and dietary needs.

What is your approach to hospital food?

“I feel blessed every day to be part of this organization, where I have the opportunity each day to provide a moment of respite through this delicious food.” — Noriel San Pedro

San Pedro: Eating nutritious food should promote health and prevent illness. Getting into the habit of eating delicious and satisfying healthy food is a goal for our customers of all ages. This is one way to support Stanford Health Care’s mission “to care, to educate, and to discover.” I take pride in my work, especially working at Stanford Health Care. I’m working with a good team and am grateful for my managers. They encourage my growth as a chef and help me do what I love.

By working in the hospital kitchen, I can do my part in providing high quality and safe care to our patients and customers. I want to make sure that the food I serve to the customer is made with love and compassion. We strive to make sure they love our menu and want to come back again.

Why do you choose to create and serve plant-forward menu items?

“I based my recipe on the way my mom made the recipe, what I learned from watching her in the kitchen as a kid, but with my own creative twist, making it plant-based.” — Noriel San Pedro

San Pedro: My mom has diabetes and high blood pressure, and I too have a high blood pressure and am borderline diabetic. Creating plant-forward meals is important to me personally.

My recipe is healthy for people with these health issues because it’s low sodium. It’s flavored by sauce and spices. The only salt is from the soy sauce in the vinaigrette and a small amount in the vegetable base.

I grew up surrounded by vegetables and want to create healthy food and share it. We can prevent health issues by eating a little less meat and more vegetables.

I am creating the food that I learned from my mom, but it’s a new recipe, my own creation. I want to improve upon my mom’s recipe. When she cooked it, she used the old ways with meat. I based my creation on the way she made the recipe, what I learned from watching her in the kitchen as a kid, but with my own creative twist, making it plant-based.

Where do you find inspiration?

“It was through my mom’s cooking that I began to gain understanding of living off of the land and develop my love for the preparation of delicious meals.” — Noriel San Pedro

San Pedro: My number one inspiration is my mom. I’m a bit of a mama’s boy. I still call her when I have a question I can’t solve. I want to give her credit because when I was a kid, she took care of me and cooked for me. I was a tiny boy when I was young and she wanted me to grow strong. When she cooked a meal, she’d explain what we were eating and why it was good for me. “Vegetables are good for your body, your heart, and your intelligence,” she’d say. “They will make you stronger.” My mom always made big meals that kept us healthy and happy.

My passion for cooking celebrates the bounty of our rich soil in the Philippines. Adobo de la tierra harkens back to my youth when my mother would prepare traditional Filipino adobo using the ingredients that were available in our small town of San Ricardo. It was through my mom’s cooking that I began to gain understanding of living off of the land and developed my love of preparing delicious meals.

What is your favorite plant protein? Why?

Why did you participate in the contest?

“The contest challenged Noriel to create a familiar meal, but to make it a plant-forward version without losing any of the robust flavors people are used to.” — Steven K. Olesen

San Pedro: Steven Olesen and Stephen Sonke asked me to join the contest. I was very excited and automatically started thinking about recipes. So, I spoke to Mr. Sonke. “I have three menus in my mind now.” I was excited to create a plant-forward dish. I felt honored to represent Stanford Health Care and the production team and to have the guidance and support of my boss.

Steven Olesen: There was plenty of excitement, as Noriel mentioned, when we asked him to prepare a dish. One of our mantras here at Stanford Health Care food services is “globally inspired, locally crafted.” We proudly display it on our menus. I think this dish embodies that mantra. It’s globally inspired by Noriel’s culinary experience growing up in the Philippines and locally crafted here in our hospital kitchen by our talented culinary team. Adobo with chicken and pork are popular, especially in the Bay Area. The contest challenged Noriel to create a familiar meal but to make a plant-forward version without losing any of the robust flavors that people are used to. At the beginning of the creative process, the atchara was not a component of the dish, but adding it really gave it that sweet, spicy note that it needed. Because our entire platform aims to use less animal protein, we thought this dish and the competition were perfect for us.

How did the recipe go over? Did you reach people who had not heard of it?

The typical reaction was something between ‘I didn’t know that it would taste the same as the original version’ or ‘I can’t believe this is made from plants’ and ‘[This] takes me back to home.’ When you hear comments like that, you know you’ve got it right.” — Steven K. Olesen

San Pedro: Before we started serving the recipe, we had a number of tastings. We made adjustments throughout the process. Before we featured the dish in our retail cafeteria, I actually asked my wife to mention to one of her coworkers here at Stanford Health Care, “Hey, try our new plant-based Adobo. It’s going to be delicious, and it’s healthier.” Based on my observations, our customers love vegan and vegetarian food options, they want healthy foods.

Olesen: We do see quite a demand for plant-based foods. It’s a healthier way of eating, moving the fruits and vegetables to the center of the plate.

Jodi Krefetz: Shifting the center of the plate, focusing on local, organic, sustainable food as much as possible, with antibiotic-free, hormone-free meats and cage-free eggs, has been our philosophy at Stanford Health Care food services for over seven years through our transformational platform. Plant-forward menus are certainly a component of that. We have been including plant-based meats and plant-forward options regularly on the menu for a few years now. It’s great to see creativity around plant-forward options with the entry into the contest last year and this year, and love to see the creativity that Noriel and the production team was able to bring forth.

Olesen: A number of people came up during service. We had Noriel front and center out there. The typical reaction was something between “I didn’t know that it would taste the same as the original version” or “I can’t believe this is made from plants” and “[This] takes me back to home.” When you hear things like that, you know you’ve got it right.

San Pedro: I’d say, “This isn’t the adobo you’re used to but it’s delicious.” It’s really, seriously delicious. The atchara gives more flavor on top of the adobo de la tierra. I know a number of our Filipino customers were commenting, “I thought this was the meat adobo?” and I said “No, it’s a plant-based version.” We enjoy receiving feedback from our customers, especially when they’d say, “it’s delicious!”

Krefetz: I want to thank Noriel, who is extremely committed, and point out that he persevered through many recipe adjustments, just to get the texture right, because in his heart he wanted to perfect this recipe. He has an incredible amount of creativity and dedication.

What was your reaction to winning?

We’re so proud to be a part of it. All the effort and creativity that Noriel put forth to make this happen — it certainly is an incredible accomplishment.” — Jodi Krefetz

San Pedro: I’m super happy because I never expected to win. I want to give credit to the whole team because they helped me to achieve the delicious dish. We made a number of adjustments during the development of the meal. My boss helped with the presentation, encouraging me to focus on the visual appeal in addition to the flavor.

Stephen Sonke: You can hear the passion that Noriel has for cooking, and where the basis of his cooking skills stem from and how that filtered through into this dish. When I thought about how we’re going to submit or what we’re going to submit to this contest, I thought of Noriel immediately because of his strong skills in Filipino cuisine and plant-forward mindset.

It was really exciting to see him flourish and grow through this process, and I am glad we are a part of this. Win or not, it was a positive experience for the entire team, and taking first place was very exciting.

Krefetz: We were elated — over the moon — to find out that Noriel was being recognized for this. And we’re truly honored and so proud to be a part of it. All the effort and creativity that Noriel and the team put forth to make this happen — it certainly was an incredible accomplishment.

Sonke: The experience of participating in the contest is having a lasting effect. It’s getting some creativity going amongst our team. It has created a healthy competition between the chefs and cooks. They’re all excited about continuing to put this plant-forward practice in place, which is only going to enhance our overall plant-forward platform.

Would you recommend the contest to others?

How has your work changed due to COVID-19?

You don’t know what your customers are experiencing at work and in their lives. The pandemic increased everyone’s responsibilities and stress. We aim to make them smile and provide a moment of respite through our food. We hope to comfort.” — Noriel San Pedro

San Pedro: There was a big impact with COVID-19, of course. You don’t know what your customers are experiencing at work and in their lives. Cooking in the hospital is a big responsibility. The pandemic increased responsibilities and added stress. We aim to make them smile and temporarily eliminate any sadness when they taste our food. We’re not only serving patients and their families, but also the frontline staff. COVID-19 has affected everyone, including our staff. We aim to make them smile and provide a moment of respite through our food. We hope to comfort. I take satisfaction in the fact that we always serve wholesome, nutritious food to our customers — food that makes them smile.

Any words of advice for your fellow chefs?

Words of support and gratitude from Stanford leadership

“The food services team continues to reduce the environmental and climate impact of the meals we serve while improving the health and well-being of our patients and staff. Their commitment to sustainable and local food is exemplary and the team is incredibly humble about their accomplishments. They are truly climate and health champions in every way, every day. Congratulations to this very special team.” — Terry Duffina, director of the sustainability program office for Stanford Health Care

What does plant-forward mean to you?

For San Pedro, plant-forward means taking inspiration from your culture and family history to create a beloved dish that was traditionally meat and make a plant-based version.

What does plant-forward mean to you? Check out what other hospital food champions are saying and let us know what your thoughts are. Submit a video or create a social media post on your favorite platform. Tag it with #plantforwardfuture so we can track and amplify your posts.

Charge into the #plantforwardfuture

Health Care Without Harm seeks to transform health care worldwide so the sector reduces its environmental footprint and becomes a leader in the global movement.