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Revitalizing UC San Diego Medical Center’s Arbor Café


By Eileen Silva   |   November 04, 2016
Sous chef Rodriguez

Regular visitors to Arbor Café, the cafeteria at UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest, will have noticed recent upgrades and there’s more to come in 2017. Behind the scenes, not only are many of the ingredients locally sourced, so are the talented team members who are renovating both the environment and the menu. Retail food service manager Raul Maldonaldo has been with the Department of Nutrition Services for over 35 years; sous chef Miguel Rodriguez, who joined the department in 2013, has lived in San Diego since 1982. Also, many of the prep cooks, service line and administrative staff have been with UC San Diego Health for 10 years or more.

Such dedication shines through in their efforts to improve the dining experience for patients, visitors and staff. The new salad bar is the most noticeable recent change. “We now offer a variety of mixed salads along with items to make your own. Salads are one of our biggest selling items,” says Maldonaldo. Other upgrades include cashier stations on wheels to improve customer flow, the return of the expo station featuring quick bites to go, and a new station offering fair trade, certified organic coffee from EcoGrounds.

A complete renovation of the kitchen to accommodate made-to-order cooking for patient meals, similar to the update in La Jolla, is in progress. The tentative launch date is summer 2017.  In the meantime, Rodriguez developed a health-conscious menu that’s also tasty and eco-friendly in collaboration with executive chef Rodney Fry and Chris Bilbrey, sous chef in La Jolla.

UC San Diego Health is part of the Nutrition in Healthcare Leadership Team (NHLT), a collaborative of San Diego County health care systems dedicated to advancing healthful, sustainable food practices. Chris McCracken, RD, director of Nutrition Services, is the co-chair of NHLT and the guiding force in offering “the freshest, best-tasting meals to our patients while also supporting the University of California’s broad sustainability efforts.”

As part of the new menu guidelines, Rodriguez was tasked with creating a vegetarian entree for the carving station. He adapted his own invention, a “Veggie Wellington” — locally sourced roasted vegetables flavored with a blend of Italian herbs and wrapped in a delectable puff pastry — which is served weekly on Meatless Mondays.

Maldonado and Rodriguez

Raul Maldonaldo (left) and Miguel Rodriguez (right) serve up "Veggie Wellington" fresh out of the oven.

“Roasting is one of my favorite ways to extract flavor, especially in vegetables, because all the natural sugars develop during that process. You do a little bit of this, a little bit of that in marinating, and you develop really good flavors. I’ve always thought that cooking is as deep and as complex as you want it to be. The more you look, the more you find,” says Rodriguez. 

“Miguel brings a real flavor to our department — he has a whole foods background as well as a background in managing big production kitchens, and knows how to extract the most flavor out of each item,” says Sadie Clements, RD, assistant director of Nutrition Services. “It’s really important to explore nutrition as well as innovative ways of production.”

Rodriguez’s prior experience includes executive chef at Lomas Santa Fe Country Club in Solana Beach and at Optimum Health Institute of San Diego, in addition to other institutions. He pursued the opportunity of sous chef in Hillcrest since, as a single father of four, the morning shift allows him to spend more time with his son and daughters (his eldest daughter is “a proud Triton student at UC San Diego”). He also likes “the trend that UC San Diego Health is pursuing to be innovative. I’m very pleased to have the opportunity UC San Diego Health has given me. And the trust.”

“Our main goals are patient satisfaction and patient service. We all work together as one team,” says Maldonaldo. “We’re developing a new menu to feature ethnic food one day per week to celebrate the different cultures of our customers, as well as more variety for the expo station.” Come in to the Arbor Café at UC San Diego Medical Center in Hillcrest and taste for yourself!

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