Chef Joseph Moreno shares how he drew from his past and present to win the Health Care Culinary Contest
It’s October 2022, and the competition is heating up at Stanford Health Care. The hospital’s chefs are vying for the chance to submit their recipes on behalf of the hospital to Health Care Without Harm’s Health Care Culinary Contest. The culinarians submitted various ideas to their leadership, but one dish, and chef, emerged as the top contender: Chef Joseph Moreno and his spicy lentils with honey walnut cauliflower. It impressed the contest judges as much as it impressed Moreno’s colleagues, and he was awarded first prize.
Inspired by Chinese takeout and food his mother cooked when he was a kid, the dish is a take on honey walnut shrimp. It has a base of warm, spiced lentils topped with crispy cauliflower florets, coated in a sweet, tangy yogurt sauce, and finished with toasted walnuts.
Each fall, Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth host the contest to honor the hard-working chefs who make plant-forward menus possible and celebrate the actions health care organizations are taking to reduce their climate impact through food.
Five recipes rose to the top in the 2022 contest. They were judged for flavor, how they appealed to the senses, the story of the recipe’s origins, the hospital’s efforts to promote the dish, and aspects important to health care food service like ease of execution, availability of ingredients, and nutritional and taste appropriateness for patients and patrons.
Participating in the contest has become a yearly tradition for many hospitals. This is the case with Stanford Health Care, which has submitted a recipe in four of the contest’s five years. A fierce competitor, the hospital landed in the top five every year and took the top prize twice.
The contest is run in partnership with Menus of Change, an initiative of The Culinary Institute of America, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the College of Food Innovation & Technology at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.
Chef Moreno’s accomplishment was celebrated at CleanMed 2023 in Pittsburgh, where the chef received a plaque, and the winning dish was served to attendees. He will also be honored at the Culinary Institute of America’s upcoming Menus of Change Leadership Summit June 21–22.
The story behind the recipe
Stanford Hospital is a 610-bed hospital in Stanford, California, a town located about 35 miles south of San Francisco that is home to Stanford University, of which the hospital is an affiliate. As a Practice Greenhealth partner and Cool Food Pledge signatory, the hospital is committed to sustainability. Through its plant-forward menuing, the hospital has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 27% over three years. This great progress would not have been possible without the dedication and commitment of its culinary staff, including Moreno.
Moreno drew from the past and present in developing his recipe, with inspiration from his wife and mother. He considered the challenging financial times many in his community are facing today and remembered his mother’s skills in creative reuse of leftover food.
“My mother was able to serve us delicious and nutritious meals with finite food items in the house,” Moreno shared. “She used everything so nothing would go to waste.”
One of the staples in his mother’s home was leftover rice, and fried rice was an easy and delicious way to reuse it. Moreno followed this line of creative inspiration, combining it with his love for Chinese takeout to create his dish, substituting lentils for fried rice.
“Growing lentils adds nitrogen to and stores carbon in the soil, and withstands drought,” Moreno shared. “Most importantly, they are nutritionally dense, flavorful, and a perfect substitute for the rice in the dish.”
He used locally grown organic cauliflower for a contrasting, meaty topping and knew that once tasted, the traditional flavors would be recognizable.
The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. One patient family member said, “I have never had lentils like this. It’s amazing how all these flavors blend together. It’s wonderful.” And a staff member exclaimed, “I could eat this everyday — this is so up my alley!”
Meet the chef behind the winning recipe
With his parents working overnight shifts, Moreno came to cooking early. He cooked for his siblings and then as a young prep cook at a yacht club. He decided to build on his skills through education and graduated from the California Culinary Academy with an associate’s degree in culinary arts. Shortly after graduation, he spent several years refining his cooking skills while working at some of San Francisco’s best fine-dining Thai and Japanese restaurants.
Craving a different environment, Moreno accepted a position at the University of California, Berkeley as a sous chef. Institutional cooking suited Moreno, and he began his health care career with Sutter Health as a line cook for patient dining. He ultimately found his way to Stanford Health Care as a line cook for the hospital cafeteria before moving into his current role as production supervisor. The San Francisco native has, “four amazing children, a wife that rivals him in the kitchen, and a smart, funny, and kind granddaughter.”
We interviewed Moreno about his win.
Why did you choose to become a chef? Why a hospital chef?
Cooking has always been a part of my life. I enjoyed cooking for my family and they said, well, you are a great cook — why don’t you make it a career? And it became a passion of mine after that. I became a hospital chef because of my experience back in the 80s when my children were born. Hospital food followed the stereotype it had back then — bland and uninspiring and not very healthy. Now that things have changed, and hospitals like Stanford are adopting the concept of food as medicine, it’s more open to creativity, and we can start implementing more flavor, as long as it’s nutritious and balanced. It has been a good challenge for me.
Where do you find inspiration in your cooking?
To be honest, I find it in my wife. She’s an excellent cook. She’s very passionate about cooking and likes doing things her way. Her dishes are always great. So I’m pretty proud of my wife and the things she’s done. She was a sushi chef for 27 years. She can cook Thai, Italian, and Filipino food. You name it, she can cook it. I get that driving inspiration from her to keep pushing myself.
What is your approach to hospital food?
My approach for our retail areas is to bring great flavors to food that is nutritious and sustainably produced.
What do you think about the connection between the food you serve in the hospital and the health of your community?
For me, it’s about using local vendors. It creates a connection between the hospital and the people who grow and produce our food. When our community members have a good livelihood, they have the resources to stay healthy.
Why do you choose to create and serve plant-forward menu items?
It’s for the health of our employees and patients. It’s also important to the hospital. Stanford is very plant-based. Since I have been here, we have made many changes in that direction. I have learned a lot, and it has taught me that plant-based food can be delicious.
What is your favorite plant protein? Why?
I love kidney beans, because I love to make chili. I can make refried beans with them if I want to make some tacos or burritos. I also eat them straight and put them in a salad. I love to eat them like that.
Why did you participate in the contest?
To be honest, my kids. Many people look up to their parents or someone older, but I look up to my kids. My oldest son is a fireman, my middle son is in law enforcement, and my youngest son is a computer genius type of guy. And then my daughter is getting straight A pluses in high school. So I look up to them, and I was thinking, you know what? I’ve got to step up my game. You know, I want them to be proud of me, and to say, “my dad won!” I wanted to challenge myself, and the contest helped me do that.
Why did you choose this recipe?
It was my mother’s, and it’s something I grew up with that I still do today with fried rice. Changing it to lentils was kind of scary at the beginning. I didn’t think the flavors were going to hold, mixing it with the cauliflower and making it like a walnut prawn-type thing. It worked out, and I was pretty shocked. My managers said they were going to put this one in for the contest, and I was pretty proud of it.
How did the recipe go over? What was the reaction from people that tried it?
So this is a funny story. My manager told me, “I want you to prep for 200 people for when we showcase this dish.” And I said okay, but I didn’t prep for 200 people, because I didn’t think it was going to sell as it did. And once lunch started, I was backed up on cauliflower. I was backed up on lentils, and he said, “What did I tell you? You’ve got people in line that want to eat this dish!” It went very well. It was awesome. And we showcased it again on Earth Day. And it went super — I went through 14 cases of cauliflower and 400 pounds of lentils. It was just compliment after compliment, and I’m not too used to that, but it was wonderful.
What was your reaction to winning?
Coming into this year, because we submitted late last year, I was waiting to hear the results of who won. I told my coworker that two things that would make my year are winning the culinary contest and receiving my fifth-degree black belt in karate. I got both, and it’s like Christmas. The day we were notified, I hadn’t checked my email, and my manager came up and said, “People are going to be saying congratulations.” I said, “For what?” And he says, “You won.” I was on top of the world, and I couldn’t wait to tell my wife.
Would you recommend the culinary contest to others? If so, why?
Yes, definitely. I think it’s a great experience. I mean even if you don’t win, I think just trying to meet the challenges is awesome.
Anything else you would like to add?
To be honest, I don’t want to take all the credit for the dish. I want to thank my managers: Justin Rucobo, Stephen Sonke, Stephen Rendes, who orders all the food for us, and Jod Krefetz. And I want to thank Kevin, Molly, Deborah, Amy, Ryan, Marisol, and Yair. Those are my co-workers and my supervisor who work with me. They all gave me support. Without this team I work with, my win wouldn’t have been possible. They backed me up from day one, and they’re still backing me now. I love my team — they’re awesome.
Dive into the #PlantForwardFuture with our resources for hospitals including Plant Powered 30: A fun, new, and free employee engagement activity.